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Here's What You Need To Know About Those Medicare Cuts To Pap Smears And Other Tests

The government's changes to bulk billing incentives for pathology and diagnostic imaging services are being heavily criticised. But is it as bad as it sounds?

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Before Christmas, the federal government announced in its mid-year budget update that they would be cutting the bulk-billing incentive payments for pathology tests such as pap smears from July 2016.

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No one paid much attention to the announcement then because a) Christmas and b) sounds boring.

But now, three weeks later, people are getting really angry. There's a petition that's been signed by 11,000 people and a rally planned for February.

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"It is disgusting that your government is cutting bulk billing incentives for pap smears, MRI's, urine/blood tests, X-rays and ultrasounds. According to the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia president Michael Harrison, the cuts will force patients to pay at least $30 for a pap smear, urine or blood test," said the petition's organiser Brigitte Garozzo in a letter addressed to health minister Sussan Ley.

Garozzo, an NTEU branch organiser, argues that the cuts will target women, and that free pathology tests ensure the early detection of diseases and pregnancy.

Some people are arguing that your Medicare rebate for these pathology services is being cut, but that is ~not~ true.

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Pap smears, which test for cervical cancer, and other pathology tests are still listed on the Medicare Benefits Scheme.

Luckily for everyone, the health minister cleared up the confusion on Twitter.

RT fyi NO cut 2 $ value of Medicare Rebate YOU receive 4 pap smear/test or your access to it as falsely claimed 2day #papsmears #auspol

What IS being cut is the ~bulk-billing incentive~ that's paid to pathology providers. That's the money the government currently pays to the companies testing your cervix scrapings to encourage them to bulk bill you.

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These bulk-billing incentives haven't been around for that long. In fact, they were only introduced in 2009 by Labor. They're an extra payment made to those companies who bulk bill patients, so they don't have any out of pocket costs.

Last year, 98.7% of pathology services provided out of hospital were at no cost to the patient. Cool!

But the government wants to save money, and they reckon that ditching those bulk billing incentives will deliver savings of $650 million.

Sussan Ley says everyone needs to chill. She says most providers bulk bill anyway and that probably won't change, because they need to remain competitive.

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"We do not expect the changes to affect the majority of consumers due to the high level of competition in the sector, and will ensure some of these services are better aligned with other medical and health providers, such as GPs," she said in a statement.

The government is currently conducting a huge review of Medicare rebates, and many in the sector think it's weird for them to do this announcement before that's been released.

But the move has been slammed by medical industry groups, who argue that it will shift costs to patients.

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Brian Owler from the Australian Medical Association called it "a co-payment by stealth."

“These measures are simply resurrecting a part of the government’s original ill-fated co-payment proposal from the 2014 Budget,” he said.

“The government is continuing to retreat from its core responsibilities in providing access to affordable, quality health services for the Australian people."

And the CEO of Pathology Australia says bulk billing rates will drop, with patients forced to pay more for tests.

“Some may even choose not to fill their pathology referrals and thus will not receive essential tests,” she said.

But Sussan Ley has hit back at Pathology Australia, saying they are more worried about their shareholders than patients.

"Alleged claims by pathologists about the potential cost of raising their prices as a result of any changes are also misleading, because they have omitted the value of the Medicare rebate a patient receives from the government to help cover this very cost," she said.

"It is important to acknowledge complaints from stock exchange-listed pathology companies about this MYEFO decision have revolved around impacts on ‘shareholders’ – not patients – exposing what is really motivating these criticisms."

Soooo basically, unless the government changes its mind, come July, you should check if your pap smear or other pathology test will be bulk-billed.

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Or you could end up having to cover that gap between the Medicare rebate and what the laboratory is charging to do the test.

Oh, and in good news, pap smears every two years will soon be a thing of the past! In 2017 there'll be a new HPV test instead, that you only have to take every five years.

As your doctor says, every uterus has a silver lining.

Alexandra Lee is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.

Contact Alex Lee at alexandra.lee@buzzfeed.com.

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