Reliance Health introduces consultation fee

Gosford Hospital’s emergency departmentGosford Hospital’s emergency department is experiencing extra pressure from non-urgent patients.

The region’s four Reliance Health practices are set to begin charging for consultations as the Primary Health Network (PHN) highlights a shortage of GPs on the Central Coast.

The PHN recently sent a discussion paper to the Department of Health indicating that since the Commonwealth Government introduced the Distribution Priority Area (DPA) classification system – replacing the existing Districts of Workforce Shortage (DWS) Assessment Areas for General Practitioners (GPs) and Bonded Doctors – 149 practices have lost DWS/DPA status, representing approximately 38 per cent of practices in the region.

All four Reliance Health practices will charge a $20 gap for consultations from April 1.

A spokesperson from Reliance Health said they have tried to keep the gap as low as possible as they understand it is not easy for many people financially.

“Private patients (anyone that is not on a pension card, health care card or aged 15 and under) will need to pay for their consultation and will receive all except $20 back from Medicare,” the spokesperson said.

“If the Central Coast didn’t have such a hard time attracting GPs, or if the Department of Health allowed more GPs that haven’t yet attained their full FRACGP to practise on the Central Coast, it would be a different story.”

It is the first time the Federally funded super clinic which usually bulk bills will be charging for appointments.

One resident has expressed concern about the fee, saying it may be the start of bulk billing and free health care ending on the Central Coast.

“I’m concerned about having to pay a gap payment of $20 whilst still not able to access a permanent doctor,” the resident said.

“I am also concerned that people not willing or wanting to pay may go to the hospital ED (Emergency Department) instead, adding further pressure to an already over-stressed public hospital system.”

A spokesperson for the Central Coast Local Health District (CCLHD) said they had seen an increase in non-urgent cases submitted into the Emergency Department at Gosford Hospital.

“In the past year, there has been an average increase of two to three patients per day within the Triage 5 non-urgent category of Emergency Department (ED) presentations at Gosford Hospital, compared with the previous year,” CCLHD Spokesperson said.

“This could be attributed to many factors, including possible increases in the number of residents and tourists on the Central Coast.”

The statistic was not mirrored at Wyong Hospital.

Mingara Medical GP, Dr Quinten Willemse, agrees with Reliance Health’s decision to implement the service fee as he also believes there is a shortage of doctors on the Central Coast.

“To provide high-level service and quality care to the community of the Central Coast, I would suspect that this will at least occasionally attract fees,” Willemse said.

“Reliance choosing to implement a service fee is not unreasonable, and as another service provider of quality care on the Central Coast, I would assume it is only to help support ongoing quality care and individualised medical support to a community in need.”

The Telehealth service introduced by Minister for Health and Medical Research, Brad Hazzard, aims to combat the GP shortage across rural regions in NSW, but a spokesperson from the PHN for Central Coast and Hunter said it is not enough.

“We agree with comments put forward by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) that while Telehealth has become a vital component of the mix of services GPs offer because of its flexibility, convenience and efficiency, not everything can be done via Telehealth and GPs will still always need to offer face-to-face consultations,” the spokesperson said.

Jacinta Counihan

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