Medicare freeze and low indexation: Penny McInnes says poor and chronically ill patients suffer

It's not meant to be this way, Penny McInnes says. How much money you have is not meant to dictate your access to healthcare.

At 65 years of age, Penny is old enough to remember the introduction of Medicare, the praise heaped on Australia's universal health care policy and the promise of a society where no one would die too soon, because they were poor.

"The government said no one is going to be put into this situation," she said.

"But because of the Medicare freeze, because they're not paying doctors correctly, the doctor can't afford to live so they have to put charges on patients. Now, if you don't have money you don't get looked after, that's it."

The Lavington woman is a carer for her husband Graeme, who has chronic lung disease, scoliosis of the spine, and severe phantom pain from the arm he's had amputated.

For more than four decades Penny and Graeme had attended the same doctors surgery in Lavington.

They saw physicians retire and fresh-faced doctors take their place, and in turn the doctors saw their children grow from babies to parents.

But now, after 40 years Penny and Graeme are having to look for a new GP after their long-term doctor stopped offering bulk billing.

If i'm going to get sick I'm going to have to save up for weeks before I can go to a doctor and by that time i'm going to end up in hospital or i'm going to end up...well, who knows...

Penny McInnes

The surgery could no longer afford to run without all patients paying a fee.

The pair both hold health care cards and are on Centrelink benefits, Graeme because of his illnesses and Penny because she cares for Graeme, 65.

The surgery offers reduced fees for pensioners and health care card holders, so after the Medicare rebate Penny has to pay only $20 out-of-pocket.

But Penny and Graeme still have to find the money to pay the full fee upfront before they get the rebate.

And they still need to pay $20 each visit which for Graeme alone is at least twice a month.

And they simply can't afford to.

"If I'm going to get sick I'm going to have to save up for weeks before I can go to a doctor and by that time I'm going to end up in hospital or I'm going to end up ... well, who knows," Penny said.

"A doctor should treat a patient who is sick and needs help whether they've got money in their pocket or not.

"Charging someone when they haven't got the money isn't looking after a patient."

Penny is angry - at her former doctors and at the government - but overwhelmingly she's scared.

She knows there are other bulk-billing doctors, but she also knows her doctor isn't the only one having to ask health care card holders to pay just to stay afloat.

She is afraid that she and Graeme will spend years jumping from clinic to clinic, searching for bulk-billing options, as more surgeries implement patient fees.

She's scared for what this means for her and her chronically ill husband for whom consistency of care is vitally important.

"What about pensioners, families with five kids or people on the dole - where are they going find that money? They're flat out finding rent money, food money, electricity and gas money..."

Penny McInnes

And she's scared that going to the doctor will become a luxury people can't afford.

"I'm looking for a bulk-billing doctor now and I'm going to have to go to one that has not seen me before, that doesn't know me and I don't know them," she said.

"I'm 65 years of age. I'm really disgusted about it.

"When you're chronically ill [like Graeme] and they have all your history... it's hard.

"I'm worried if I start with another [GP], am I going to come across this again down the line because of this Medicare freeze on doctors?"

Penny knows that for many $20 is not a huge amount of money, but she says for those that are struggling, it is.

And she knows the cost won't just be economical. If bulk-billing practices become a thing of the past, it's society's most vulnerable who will pay.

"It's trivial for people on a wage or a good wage, but not for people on a hard-working, low-income wage," she said.

"It's OK for these politicians because they sit in their Ivory tower and collect their wages that are absolutely huge. They can't see what it's doing to people in my situation, which is putting them at risk of not getting their health looked after. You have people working three jobs a week just to make ends meet, they can't afford doctors bills.

"What about pensioners, families with five kids or people on the dole - where are they going find that money? They're flat out finding rent money, food money, electricity and gas money..."

This story The real cost of a 'corroded' Medicare isn't financial ... it's human first appeared on The Border Mail.