The federal government has finally begun advertising its specialist fee site, years after it was launched amid promises of ending bill shock.
Videos to be run online and in GP waiting rooms pitch the database as a one-stop-shop to “take the surprise out of private medical costs” with “tips to confidently discuss fees with your specialist”.
Posters distributed to medical practices around the country also herald an easy way to find “typical costs” for common health treatments, with the government also creating brochures and resources for interested parties to post on social media promoting the site.
It comes more than four years after the site was first unveiled, with then-health minister Greg Hunt pledging a new era of transparency for medical fees.
“We have worked with medical specialists, consumers, private health insurers and hospitals to develop the Medical Costs Finder,” he said at the time.
“The website was also informed by consumer research and testing, to deliver the results patients and their families want and need.”
Relaunched at the start of 2023 with capability to publish the actual fees of individual specialists, the site has remained essentially a ghost town. A search by the limbic identified only five doctors listed as of last week: two gastroenterologists and three surgeons.
And that number is showing little signs of rising, at least based on a webinar for interested specialists that we tuned into last year in which we were the only attendee.
Still, the site does hold some useful functionality, including aggregate data collected by Medicare showing the average costs of many services broken down by specialty as well as fee breakdowns detailing typical additional procedural charges such as anesthetist and hospital fees.
Make doctors use site, say private health funds
Meanwhile, the private health insurance industry is arguing all specialists should be forced to reveal their fees on the site to put a lid on what it describes as rampant fee inflation.
“When people receive a serious clinical diagnosis, they are at their most vulnerable,” Private Healthcare Australia CEO Dr Rachel David told reporters this week.
“There is a massive information asymmetry between a medical specialist and the average consumer, which can easily be exploited.”
“This is precisely the time patients need access to accurate information about the costs they are facing as part of informed financial consent, preferably with an upfront quote for the services they will likely require. If we can quote for home and car repairs, there is no valid reason why this can’t be done for medical procedures.”
She pointed to a report into price gouging and unfair pricing practices released by former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACC) chair Professor Allan Fels on Wednesday, which specifically took aim at ‘egregious billing’ by medical specialists.
The report noted that out-of-pocket fees charged by doctors such as surgeons and specialists had increased by more than 50% in real terms from 2012-2022.
This, along with anecdotal evidence from patients, had shown that the website had “failed to deliver”, Dr David said.
“It’s time for the Government to intervene and publish doctors’ fees. The Government has this data, they are just choosing not to publish it,” said Dr David.
“Consumers and their GP can then make an informed choice about which specialist doctor to choose based on their skills, qualifications, and price.”
She also called for legislation specifically banning what she termed ‘surprise billing’, to ensure patients were not held liable for any costs not specifically disclosed up-front before their medical treatment, with civil and criminal penalties for breaches.
“In the current cost-of-living crisis, there is no justification for powerful vested interests to engage in price gouging. We must do everything we can to reduce inflated out-of-pocket costs associated with medical treatment and ensure Australians have the tools to make informed choices about their healthcare,” Dr David said.