2021 Federal Budget analysis: Will new MBS rebates get GPS to move out of the cities?

Rural Australia
Photo credit: Gabriele Delhey / Wikimedia

Nearly a third of Australians (around 7 million people) live in rural or remote communities. For people in these communities, seeing a general practitioner (GP) can require a long wait or a long drive. That’s because compared to cities there are 40% fewer GPs working in these communities.

Attracting doctors to move to and remain in rural or remote locations is an ongoing challenge. One which the Australia government has attempted to meet using a range of different methods. These include payment incentives to move practices out of urban areas and requirements for doctors who immigrate to Australia to spend up to 10 years working outside of the major metropolitan areas.

However, financial incentives may not be effective and can be costly. Previous research by PCHSS’ Professor Tony Scott revealed that a general practitioner’s (GP) income would need to increase as much as 130% to encourage them to move from a city to a very remote location (or by 18% for less remote communities).

2021 Federal Budget: Increase in bulk-billing rebates for GPS in rural and remote areas

It is therefore unclear what impact of the new bulk-billing rebates announced in the 2021 Federal budget will have on attracting and retaining GPs in rural areas. As Professor Scott explains in his recent article in Pursuit, It’s more than the money: getting GPs to go to rural areas, the increased rebates can only be claimed for certain consultation types and patients (i.e., under 16 years old or Commonwealth concession card holders). The rebates also depend on the GPs location.

Uncertain impact on GPs and communities

So far, there has been no research on how these changes will impact GPs salaries and therefore if the new incentives will have the desired effect. Previous research (which found that up to 65% of established GPs wouldn’t move regardless of the incentives) suggests that this may not attract new GPs. Only time will tell if it encourages existing rural and remote GPs to stay where they are.

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