Fact Check: Will Pap Smears Still Be Covered by Medicare?

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It’s fact checking time! Today, the claim that pap smears will no longer be free in Australia!

That claim is false.

I won’t link to the article in question here, because it’s misleading clickbait, but the claim that pap smears and other pathology services will no longer be covered by Medicare is scaremongering, or at least a pretty big stretch from the truth.

The change which is happening is that pathology providers will no longer be given an additional payment for bulk-billed tests. The cost of the procedure itself is still covered by Medicare.

The article is extremely misleading when it claims that “Medicare rebates for pathology and diagnostic imaging services haven’t increased for over a decade, and now they are being cut”. The incentive payment which is being cut was introduced in 2009-2010 (much less than ten years ago) to encourage providers to bulk-bill, and was a payment to providers in addition to that provided by Medicare. However since its introduction there’s been only a small increase in bulk-billing (1-3%), but a relatively large cost in incentive payments (about $1.3b over five years). It’s this additional payment that is being cut.

The incentive payments which are being cut range from $1.60–$4.00 per test, although additional incentives for are provided for children, concession card holders, and services in certain regional areas.

In response it’s conceivable that some pathology providers may choose not to no longer bulk-bill for pap smears, and if those providers charge more than the Medicare rebate then patients will see out-of-pocket costs; a situation which we already see with some GPs and specialists. However we still expect to see plenty of practices continuing to bulk-bill, because bulk-billing is extremely popular with patients and guarantees a larger customer base. I would speculate that bulk-billed pap smears will still be easy to obtain, as in 2014-15 a whopping 98.7% of out-of-hospital pathology services were at no cost to the patient.

For detailed, primary information about the changes, you can read the Australian Parliament post on the subject.

Much thanks goes to Kat McGee and Daniel Reeders who did the original research, and Linda Kirkman for bringing it to my attention. I’ve just double-checked the facts, made a graphic on Facebook, and put them into my own words.

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