During its mid-year budget update in December, the Government announced their increasingly unpopular plan to cut bulk-billing incentive payments. When the changes kick in on 1 July 2016, a number of formerly free services including pathology, x-rays, MRIs, ultrasounds and Pap smears will have to paid for by the patient.
Pap smears are crucial in the detection and prevention of cervical cancer, and it is recommended that all women who are over the age of eighteen and are sexually active undergo the procedure once every two years. Although Pap smears are currently free of charge and you only have to pay the GP consultation fee, some health experts are suggesting that the cost of a Pap smear might rise to $30 come July. The backlash against this Government plan has been swift and severe. A petition protesting the changes was set up on Change.org on Tuesday night, and has already garnered signatures from almost a hundred and forty thousand people as of 11am on Thursday.
There will also be rallies held in six cities across Australia to further protest the changes.
— Brigitte G (@brigggyg) January 6, 2016
Numerous letters of protest have been sent to Health Minister Sussan Ley. Student activist Brigitte Garozzo, who is also responsible for the petition, wrote:
“We demand Pap smears and pathology services remain free of charge. It is disgusting that your government is cutting bulk-billing incentives for Pap smears, MRI’s, urine/blood tests, X-rays and ultrasounds. “These cuts are unfair to the average Australian, but will especially hurt women. Free and accessible pathology tests are key to ensuring early detection of cervical cancer, STI’s, UTI’s and pregnancy. “Late detection will lead to MORE cost to the taxpayer in the long run. These essential services are a backbone of our world class healthcare system.”
Hundreds of commenters have agreed with Garozzo, writing messages expressing their anger at having to pay for a Pap smear.
“At age 22, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer and a Pap smear detected this. It saved my life,” one woman wrote. “Nearly two decades ago, I was diagnosed with Grade III Dysplasia of the Cervix. In other words, I was ONE step away from Cancer of the Cervix. Had it not been for the FREE Pap smear test I received and the information that followed, I would most likely be dead and buried by now,” wrote another.
Health Minister Sussan Ley has hit back at claims, dismissing the $30 price tag quoted by some pathologists as “misleading”. An official spokesperson for the Health Minister’s office has released the following statement:
“There are no changes proposed in MYEFO [Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook] regarding the cost of either receiving or delivering a physical Pap smear examination undertaken by your GP or specialist, nor their billing practices. “Alleged claims by pathologists about the potential cost of raising their prices as a result of any changes are misleading, because they have omitted the value of the Medicare rebate a patient receives from the Government to help cover this very cost.”
However, Ms Ley has previously conceded that “some may be worse off” under the changes.
Opposition Health spokeswoman Catherine King says the Government should have negotiated with the pathology sector to ensure bulk billing was protected.
“Any barrier to accessing Pap smears would have health consequences,” said Ms King. “Given the possible consequences of not having this test, this is disastrous move for women’s health that will be not only bad for patients, but a short-sighted measure that will cost the health system more in the longer term,” she added.
Sonic Healthcare chief executive told the Sydney Morning Herald that these changes will create an incentive for patients to miss important tests or scans that can lead to a misdiagnosis or a delayed diagnosis. They will also create a financial barrier to receiving medical services and discriminate against those who can’t afford services.
In addition to Pap smears, MRI scans would cost patients up to $173, according to Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia president Michael Harrison. Doctors have slammed the government for being out of touch with the real needs of patients. Australian Medical Association president Brian Owler said:
“When they [the government] make these announcements, just like the co-payments, they don’t talk to anyone. They don’t talk to pathologists, they don’t talk to doctors, they just make these announcements and then they wonder why everyone gets upset.”
Australian Diagnostic Imaging Association CEO Pattie Beerens says this means general patients should have to pay $90 upfront for an x-ray, $380 for a CAT scan, up to $160 for a mammogram and up to $190 for an ultrasound. A PET scan will cost over $1,000 upfront.
The government announced in a previous statement that from 2017, it will start to phase out Pap smears in favour of human papillomavirus (HPV) testing, following a recommendation from the Medical Services Advisory Committee, who said that this kind of testing would reduce the rate of cervical cancer by up to fifteen per cent. Federal health minister Sussan Ley has reportedly been “forced onto the back foot” after the online storm.