1.           Executive summary

In response to significant concerns raised by professional medical bodies and Medicare data showing an increase far in excess of population growth in the use of and expenditure on the Medicare items for urgent after-hours home visits, the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) Review Taskforce (the Taskforce) has reviewed the four items for urgent after-hours services (items 597, 598, 599 and 600).

The Taskforce’s role, in this and other areas under review, is to ensure that the structure of MBS items provides consumers with access to appropriate quality care.

The urgent after-hours items have much higher rebates than standard after-hours items or standard general practitioner (GP) attendance items—in some cases almost $100 more compared with the same GP service provided at the GP’s clinic. For example, item 597, the most commonly used urgent after-hours attendance, has a rebate of $129.80. This is compared to a standard after-hours Level B GP attendance with a rebate of $49.00 if provided at the doctor’s rooms (item 5020), or $74.95 if provided at the patient’s home (item 5023). The rebate for a standard ‘in-hours’ Level B consultation is $37.05 when the GP sees the patient in their consulting rooms (item 23) or $63.00 when visiting the patient’s home (item 24).

The items under review (items 597, 598, 599 and 600) specify that the patient’s condition requires urgent treatment.

1.1         Findings

The Taskforce is satisfied that the current structure of the urgent after-hours items supports the provision of comparatively low-value medical care and does not represent value for money for the taxpayer.

In reaching this conclusion the Taskforce considered the expert opinion of representatives from professional medical organisations (including the Australian Medical Association, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine and Rural Doctors Association of Australia) and Medicare data on usage patterns.

The Taskforce noted that:

           In the five years between 2010–11 and 2015–16, the number of urgent after-hours MBS services has increased by 150 per cent (from 734,000 to 1,869,000). In contrast, growth in standard GP services over the same period was 15 per cent[1].

           Benefits paid have increased by 170 per cent for urgent after-hours services over the same period (from $90.8m in 2010–11 to $245.9m in 2015–16), whilst benefits paid for standard GP services increased by 27 per cent[1].

           The growth in use of these urgent after-hours items is concentrated in some areas of urban Australia.

           Most urgent after-hours services are being provided by medical deputising services (MDSs).

           The growth in the provision of urgent after-hours services appears not to be driven by increasing clinical need for these services, but has coincided with the entry of new businesses into the market with models that promote these services to consumers, emphasising convenience and no out-of-pocket costs.

           Many urgent after-hours services claimed as urgent are not truly urgent, as intended when the items were created, and the distinction between ‘urgent’ and ‘non-urgent’ appears to be not well understood by many medical practitioners. Investigations by the Professional Services Review (PSR), the body that carries out peer reviews of inappropriate use of MBS services, found after reviewing clinical records that some practitioners are claiming these services for patients whose conditions are not urgent and could more appropriately be managed through ordinary GP attendances (either in-hours or through extended-hours GP clinics).

           It is not convinced by arguments that the growth in use of urgent after-hours home visits has had a significant impact on hospital emergency department services.

           The increasing use of the items by MDSs interferes with continuity of care by the patient’s regular GP and MDS services are often provided by less qualified clinicians.

Further information on the evidence and findings is available in Section 7 – Analysis of Medicare and other data.

The key conclusions of the Taskforce are:

  1. MBS funding should continue to be available for home visits, including in the after-hours period. Funding should continue to be available for after-hours services provided by a patient’s GP, as well as by a MDS.
  2. The rebates for urgent after-hours services should only be payable in circumstances where a GP who normally works during the day is recalled to work for management of a patient who needs, in the opinion of the GP, urgent assessment. The higher rebate recognises the additional clinical value provided by, and lifestyle and financial imposts on, GPs who deliver these services to their own patients, the practice’s patients or patients of other local practices where on-call work is shared.

In this setting it is more likely that there will be better patient triage, based on the GP’s (or a closely supervised GP trainee’s) knowledge of the patient’s circumstances, better access to patient records facilitating management, and better follow-up to ensure continuity of care.

  1. Where a business has been established specifically to routinely or exclusively provide care in the after-hours period (including a MDS) then all of the other (non-urgent) items for after-hour services should remain available to these entities.
  2. The MBS items for urgent after-hours attendances should not be available where the patient has made an appointment prior to the commencement of the after-hours period (that is, 6pm on weeknights).

 

1.2         Draft recommendations

The Taskforce is recommending changes to the four urgent after-hours items (items 597-600) only. These changes would be implemented through revised MBS item descriptors and explanatory notes for these items. The proposed new descriptors and notes are given below. There are no changes recommended for the 24 other after-hours items.

1.3         Proposed item descriptors and explanatory notes for the urgent after-hours items 597–600

 

GROUP A11 – URGENT ATTENDANCE AFTER HOURS

 

SUBGROUP 1 – URGENT ATTENDANCE – AFTER HOURS

597

Professional attendance by a GP on not more than 1 patient on the 1 occasion –each attendance (other than an attendance between 11pm and 7am) in an after-hours period if:

a)              the attendance is requested by the patient or a responsible person in the same unbroken urgent after-hours period during which the attendance occurs;

b)              the attending practitioner determines that the patient’s condition requires urgent medical assessment;

c)              the attendance is not provided by the GP as an employee, contractor, member or otherwise of a:

i. medical deputising service; or

ii. organisation that provides or facilitates medical services predominantly in after-hours periods; and

d)               if the attendance is performed at consulting rooms, it must be necessary for the practitioner to return to, and specifically open, the consulting rooms for the attendance.

See para A5 and A10 of explanatory notes to this Category

Fee: $129.80

Benefit: 75% = $97.35

100% = $129.80

Extended Medicare Safety Net Cap: $389.40

598

Professional attendance by a medical practitioner (other than a GP) on not more than 1 patient on the 1 occasion –each attendance (other than an attendance between 11pm and 7am) in an after-hours period if:

a)              the attendance is requested by the patient or a responsible person in the same unbroken urgent after-hours period during which the attendance occurs;

b)              the attending practitioner determines that the patient’s condition requires urgent medical assessment;

c)              the attendance is not provided by the practitioner as an employee, contractor, member or otherwise of a:

i. medical deputising service; or

ii. organisation that provides or facilitates medical services predominantly in after-hours periods; and

d)              if the attendance is performed at consulting rooms, it must be necessary for the practitioner to return to, and specifically open, the consulting rooms for the attendance.

Fee: $104.75

Benefit: 75% = $78.60

100% = $104.75

Extended Medicare Safety Net Cap: $314.25

 

SUBGROUP 2 – URGENT ATTENDANCE UNSOCIABLE AFTER HOURS

599

Professional attendance by a GP on not more than 1 patient on the 1 occasion –each attendance between 11pm and 7am, if:

a)               the attendance is requested by the patient or a responsible person in the same unbroken urgent after-hours period during which the attendance occurs;

b)              the attending practitioner determines that the patient’s condition requires urgent medical assessment;

c)              the attendance is not provided by the GP as an employee, contractor, member or otherwise of a:

i. medical deputising service; or

ii. organisation that provides or facilitates medical services predominantly in after-hours periods; and

d)               if the attendance is performed at consulting rooms, it must be necessary for the practitioner to return to, and specifically open, the consulting rooms for the attendance.

See para A5 and A10 of explanatory notes to this Category

Fee: $153.00

Benefit: 75% = $114.75

100% = $153.00

Extended Medicare Safety Net Cap: $459.00

600

Professional attendance by a medical practitioner (other than a GP) on not more than 1 patient on the 1 occasion –each attendance between 11pm and 7am, if:

a)       the attendance is requested by the patient or a responsible person in the same unbroken urgent after-hours period during which the attendance occurs;

b)              the attending practitioner determines that the patient’s condition requires urgent medical assessment;

c)              the attendance is not provided by the practitioner as an employee, contractor, member or otherwise of a:

i. medical deputising service; or

ii. organisation that provides or facilitates medical services predominantly in after-hours periods; and

d)              if the attendance is performed at consulting rooms, it must be necessary for the practitioner to return to, and specifically open, the consulting rooms for the attendance.

Fee: $124.25

Benefit: 75% = $93.20

100% = $124.25

Extended Medicare Safety Net Cap: $372.75

 

Explanatory notes:

A10 - Urgent After-hours Attendances (Items 597- 600)

Items 597, 598, 599 and 600 are available when, on the information available to the attending practitioner, the patient’s condition requires urgent medical assessment during the after-hours period to prevent deterioration or potential deterioration in their health. Specifically the patient’s assessment:

1. cannot be delayed until the next in-hours period; and

2. requires the practitioner to attend the patient at the patient’s location or to reopen the practice rooms.

In considering the need for urgent assessment, the practitioner may rely on information conveyed by the patient or patient’s carer; other health professionals or emergency services personnel and that information should be recorded in the patient’s medical record.

Items 597,598, 599 and 600 are only available for services provided by GPs and other medical practitioners who provide after-hours care in addition to their predominantly in-hours practice. They recognise the additional clinical value and time impost of services provided by medical practitioners who provide after-hours care to their patients, their practice's patients or patients that attend another general practice that shares an after-hours roster, compared to after-hours services provided by medical practitioners within structures that routinely offer care in the after-hours period.

For the sake of clarity items 597,598, 599 and 600 are not available for services provided through medical deputising services or other medical businesses that directly offer home attendances (including to residential aged care facilities) predominantly in the after-hours period. Such services can be billed using item 5003, 5010, 5023, 5028, 5043, 5049, 5063 or 5067 (for GPs) or 5220, 5223, 5227, 5228,5260, 5263, 5265 or 5267 (for other medical practitioners).

If more than one patient is seen on the one occasion, the standard after-hours items should be used in respect of the second and subsequent patients attended on the same occasion.

The changes flowing from the revised item descriptors and notes can be summarised as follows:

           All primary care medical services that operate in the after-hours period, including MDSs and any other organisation that provide or facilitate medical services predominantly in the after-hours period, will continue to have access to the standard after-hours items.

           Organisations that provide or facilitate medical services predominantly in after-hours periods, including MDSs, will not be permitted to claim the urgent after-hours items. Doctors employed by a MDS or obtaining work from a MDS will not be permitted to claim urgent after-hours items.

           In the descriptors for the urgent after-hours items, the current requirement that “the patient’s condition requires urgent medical treatment” will be replaced with “the patient’s condition requires urgent medical assessment”. This recognises that the need for an assessment is the actual trigger for the service and that treatment may or may not be necessary on the basis of that assessment.

           The option to book an urgent attendance up to two hours prior to the commencement of the after-hours period in which the attendance occurs will be removed.

           There will be a requirement that the attending practitioner determines that the urgent assessment of the patient’s condition is necessary and for this to be recorded.

           There will be a fuller definition of ‘urgent’, being that the patient’s assessment:

1. cannot be delayed until the next in-hours period; and

2. requires the GP to attend the patient at the patient’s location or to reopen their practice rooms.

Furthermore, the Taskforce recommends that the PSR continue to monitor after-hours use by clinicians.

1.4         Implications of changes

Rebates for after-hours attendances will continue to be available to all Medicare-eligible patients. The rebates for home visits and attendances in doctors’ consulting rooms in the after-hours periods will remain higher than for GP services provided during standard business hours. Providers’ options to provide home visits and to bulk-bill patients (with bulk billing incentives available for children under 16 years and Commonwealth concession card holders) for these services will continue.

To support the more appropriate use of the urgent after-hours items and ensure that items support high-value care, the urgent after-hours items will remain available where a GP who normally works during the day is recalled to work to manage a patient whose condition requires an urgent assessment that cannot wait until the next working day.

It is not anticipated that these changes will have an impact on the provision of appropriate after-hours services for residential aged care facilities.

1.5         Consumer engagement

The Taskforce and its After-Hours Working Group both include a consumer representative. The consumer representatives have reviewed the report and a consumer overview is provided in Section 2 – Overview for consumers. Each Taskforce draft recommendation has also been summarised for consumers in Attachment F. The summary describes the recommendations and what the impact of the proposed changes would be.

The Taskforce believes it is important to find out from consumers if, how and why they will be helped or disadvantaged by the recommendations. Following public consultation the Taskforce will assess the advice from consumers and decide whether any changes are needed to the recommendations.

 

 


[1] Based on Medicare data. Date of processing for group A1 items.