New law fixes bulk-billing headache for doctors

Financial

By Geir O'Rourke

5 Jul 2024

Specialists will soon be able to bulk-bill their patients without a physical signature, after MPs voted on reforms to prevent doctors unwittingly breaking the law when claiming Medicare rebates on their patients’ behalf.

The reform addresses a longstanding concern about the process for assigning Medicare benefits, which until now has technically required doctors to obtain a patient’s written consent prior to bulk-billing them.

While essentially unpoliced, experts say the issue has had the potential to create legal headaches for thousands of doctors who haven’t fulfilled the specific requirements, particularly since the pandemic as telehealth has boomed.

But The Health Insurance Legislation Amendment (Assignment of Medicare Benefits) Bill 2024, which passed last week, will enable a digital solution for documenting consent, and streamline the process.

The changes also enable ‘pre-assignment’ and allow patients to agree to an enduring or ongoing assignment, meaning consent to bulk-bill has been obtained for future services.

Other anachronisms to be removed from the law include:

  • Electronic consent will be allowed in addition to physical signatures, with health officials empowered to approve new consent processes as needs and technology allow
  • Patients no longer required to retain a copy of the terms of an assignment of benefit agreement
  • Doctors will no longer be required to ‘co-sign’ bulk-billing consent forms

Beyond that, the legal reform removes the penalty of imprisonment for failure to provide a patient with a copy of an assignment, and reduces the fine for all civil penalties from 10 penalty units to 5 (currently $1565).

Nevertheless, the law does stipulate that practitioners will need to retain records that consent has been obtained, with patients to be informed of all claims made in their name.

Royal Australian College of GPs (RACGP) president Dr Nicole Higgins welcomed the reforms.

“I applaud Senators for acting on the RACGP’s calls for change and passing these reforms – it will give GPs more time to spend on patient care,” she said.

“Removing the need for a physical signature will also make the process simpler and more convenient for patients, particularly those who are vulnerable.

“Reducing the complexity of Medicare is a priority for RACGP advocacy. The regulatory burden on GPs is immense – our annual Health of the Nation report has found GPs are increasingly reporting the administrative workload and associated stress among their greatest concerns.

“I look forward to continuing to work with the government to reduce the red tape and administrative burden on GPs and practice teams, so we have more time to spend caring for patients and communities.”

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