Consumer groups have criticised the federal government’s $17m of spending in the October budget on a website launched in December that allows patients to compare doctors’ fees and out-of-pocket costs.
The chief executive of the Consumers Health Forum, Leanne Wells, said because it was voluntary for doctors to disclose their fees on the Medical Costs Finder website, and because medical peak bodies had not been proactive in encouraging doctors to sign up, it had proven to be of little use to patients since it was launched.
Wells said the website had “little credibility among doctors and consumers right now because it is voluntary and has failed to attract sufficient numbers of doctors to make it a success”.
“It must move to providing individual doctors’ fees if it is to be of any use to consumers,” she said.
“That is what we were promised when the finder website was being developed. Out-of-pocket healthcare costs will hit many individuals and families harder than ever as a result of the economic impacts of the pandemic. We expect specialists to take into account the financial stress on individuals and families in setting fees.”
Wells said if the medical profession would not comply with a reasonable expectation of fees transparency, the government should investigate publishing the data they already have through Medicare on individual doctors’ fees.
The Medical Costs Finder website provides a range of three levels of expected out-of-pocket costs – “low”, “typical/median” or “high” – for listed medical procedures in a patient’s city or region. It also details the typical benefits and Medicare reimbursements for each procedure.
But it requires medical professionals to disclose and publish their fees on the site. Consumer groups have questioned why the government, given it has access to Medicare data, does not publish the data.
The Combined Pensioners & Superannuants Association also questioned the further $17m in spending, saying the website “has been bagged by patients and doctors alike since it started up late last year”.
“However, this hasn’t stopped the government from pouring a further $17m into improving the website in October’s budget,” CPSA said in a statement.
“The website went live in December 2019 and was accessed by fewer than 10,000 people in the first six months. The problem is that doctors’ participation is voluntary and will continue to be voluntary. As a result, the website cannot offer meaningful comparisons.”
But the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, said the website would continue to be voluntary.
“The government is committed to working with medical specialists to encourage and enable their participation in the Medical Costs Finder,” he said. “The website is being continually improved based on the advice of doctors, consumers and the broader medical profession.”