The federal government late last year proposed changes that would see bulk-billing cut for pathology and MRI services from 1 July 2016, including potentially life-saving pap smears. In response, a petition to federal health minister Susan Ley has already collected almost 150,000 signatures in only two days.
The petition on change.org reads:
"To Health Minister Sussan Ley,
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. According to the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia president Michael Harrison, the cuts will force patients to pay at least $30 for a pap smear, urine or blood test. The Australian Diagnostic Imaging Association claims people could pay up to $173 for an MRI scan.
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."
While Ms Ley admits "some may be worse off", overall she doesn't expect this to be the norm, because "what we will see is further competition" within the pathology business driving prices down.
Mr Harrison disputes this, stating that it is "very unlikely" laboratories will be able to absorb the costs. He says patients can expect to pay a minimum $30 for pap smears, or urine and blood tests.
A spokesperson for Ms Ley has responded to these figures, stating “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.”
“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.” Under the proposed changes patients will have to pay for an X-ray ($101), ultrasound ($206) or MRI ($532) upfront. After rebate, would be left with the gap to cover. That's $6-$56 for X-rays, $12-$101 for ultrasounds and $62-$173 for MRI's according to The Australian Diagnostic Imaging Association.
"If you have a serious condition - cancer, a heart disorder, arthritis, vascular issues - then you will need diagnostic imaging again and again to evaluate the condition and properly monitor treatment," association president Christian Wriedt said.
"So often it will be the sickest people who will be hit the hardest."
Commenters on the petition are sharing their stories of why accessible, free testing is important to them.
One woman states "A free pap smear detected type III carcinogenic cells. I was at university at the time and wouldn't have had the money to pay for a pap smear. It saved my life — now I am a professional contributing to my society."
"I'm 24 and have an autoimmune disease which needs to be carefully monitored, as well as taking medication that suppresses my immune system and makes me more vulnerable to serious infections. Free and regular blood tests are important for my health and peace of mind, and as a woman so are pap smears. If I pay my taxes, I would like to think they go towards supporting these critical services for everyone else - not ex-PMs pensions or the wages of Transfield. Health is so important, these small but critical services should not be sacrificed," writes another.
The office of Susan Ley has been contacted for comment regarding the petition.