A free and accessible coronavirus vaccination program has been key to Australia’s chart out of the pandemic, but some patients say they have been asked to attend paid appointments before accessing the vaccine.
- Some patients say they have been asked to attend paid appointments ahead of being vaccinated against COVID-19
- Australia’s vaccination program is meant to be free and accessible, with all costs covered by Medicare
- Health Minister Greg Hunt says any paid consultations would be a “clear breach” of the rules
The ABC has heard from several people who say they tried to book vaccination appointments with their GP since bookings commenced on Wednesday, only to be told they had to attend a consultation appointment beforehand.
In some instances, patients said they were explicitly told they had to pay for the consult — even though the government has introduced changes to the Medicare Benefits Schedule to ensure there were no out-of-pocket costs associated with the vaccine.
Bill*, who qualifies for phase 1b of the vaccine rollout as an Indigenous man over 55, said his regular GP clinic told him he would have to attend a paid appointment when he called to book.
“She said, ‘That’s fine but you’ll need to make an appointment with your doctor first to have an assessment done and have the paperwork filled out’ … I would have to pay for it,” Bill said.
“It’d be treated as a normal appointment so you’d get the Medicare rebate. But I’d still be out of pocket about $38 for it, which seemed to be totally against what the government was saying.
Another man, George*, said he reached out to his GP’s office after learning it was part of the rollout.
“[The receptionist] said that we would need to make an initial consult first to verify the appropriateness of the vaccine or something like that,” George said.
“She said the doctor would make another appointment for the actual vaccination.
“I just thought this isn’t right.”
George said he had subsequently been in touch with his GP’s office and they had told him he would no longer have to attend a consultation appointment as he was already a patient with the clinic.
Both men had longstanding relationships with their GPs and were not first-time patients.
Hunt says any charges ‘a breach’
The announcement that GPs were ready to accept bookings for COVID vaccinations caused a wave of demand that some practices were unprepared for.
When contacted, Health Minister Greg Hunt’s office pointed to a press conference earlier in the week, in which he said any charged consultations would be a “clear breach”.
“The vaccines must be bulk-billed,” he said.
“Who a practice takes is a matter for a general practice. But … it does have to be bulk-billed.”
Karen Price, the president of the Royal Australian College of GPs, said changes had been made to the Medicare Benefits Schedule to cover GPs’ costs, meaning there was no reason for them to ever charge patients.
“The suitability assessment, the cost of the vaccine and the vaccine delivery in general practice are fully covered for patients through Medicare.”
Dr Price said nobody needed to book separate appointments ahead of their vaccination date to have their suitability for the vaccine examined.
“Patients do not need to book a separate GP appointment prior to receiving the vaccine,” she said.
“If a patient is assessed as not being suitable to receive the vaccination and does not get one, you can still use the Medicare vaccine assessment MBS items.”
Vaccines will be free
Both George and Bill expressed concerns that the consults — which may have been due to misunderstandings of the rules during a rushed booking process — raised the spectre of a price tag being put on access to the vaccine.
“If you look at phase 1b in particular … it’s people who are over 70, it’s people who are Indigenous and over 55 and it’s people who have underlying health conditions,” Bill said.
“All three of those categories are likely to have a large chunk of people who are not really in a position to cough up an extra 40 bucks or whatever just to get the vaccination and will just say, ‘Stuff it, I won’t bother’.”
George said he worried that if that happened, Australia’s vaccine targets could be impacted.
“There are millions of Australians out there that are doing it tough and we’ve all been through hell in the past 12 months and we all want to get out of it,” he said.
“I don’t want that. I’m sure nobody else wants that either.”
*Bill and George’s names have been changed at their request, as they have ongoing relationships with their GPs.