Government investment in rebates for optometry patients under Medicare was reduced by an estimated $50 million in 2015, significantly impacting eye care access for middle-aged Australians.
These latest Medicare statistics are of concern to Optometry Australia and reflect the organisation’s predictions that the changes would jeopardise the eye health of Australians.
With over 12 million Australians experiencing eye health and vision problems at an overall cost to the Australian economy of more than $16 billion annually, eye care is an area that can no longer be overlooked.
The changes seem short-sighted when investing in preventative eye health and vision care through Australian optometrists provides so many immediate and long term benefits. Crucially, Access Economics estimates a return of $5 for every $1 invested in preventing avoidable vision loss. This return is understandable given that 80 per cent of all visual impairment is preventable or treatable if detected early.
Kate Gifford, President of Optometry Australia, the national professional body for optometrists, has expressed her disappointment with the Australian Government’s decision to disinvest in the eye health of Australians.
“Given the enormous cost of vision disorders to the Australian economy, it seems extraordinary that the Federal Government doesn’t seek to reinvest in patient rebates for optometry services in order to improve the eye health of Australians now and in the future.”
The changes, effective from 1 January 2015, have meant that many Australians are waiting longer for their routine eye examinations, due to reduced rebates provided by Medicare. Patients under 65 years of age can now only access a Medicare subsidised comprehensive eye examination every three years, when it used to be every two years.
As a result, there has been an unprecedented reduction in per capita access to optometry services under Medicare for patients aged 25-64 years. Approximately 10,000 fewer patients per 100,000 aged between 45 and 64 years accessed a comprehensive initial optometry service not associated with a new symptom or established condition in 2015 than they did the year before.
This is particularly alarming given many Australians are unknowingly living with an undiagnosed eye disease and risking permanent vision loss and blindness. One study showed that of those presenting for an eye examination, one out of every seven had undetected, asymptomatic eye disease.
Mrs Gifford pointed out that the 2015 Medicare changes to optometry patient rebates, which saw the reduction of the Medicare patient rebate by 5% as well as an extended freeze to indexation of Medicare rebates, ultimately impact disadvantaged Australians the most.
“Impacts are already being felt, particularly in disadvantaged and low income communities, where often patients can’t afford out-of-pocket expenses, yet optometrists can’t sustain viable practices on bulk-billing alone with reducing fees and increasing practice costs. The Government’s decisions will likely see some communities losing ready access to eye care,” she said.
Ms Gifford stressed that there are ready and affordable solutions that the Government can implement to better ensure middle-aged Australians and those in disadvantaged communities can access the eye care they need.
“Chief among these is ensuring that Australians aged 40-65 years, a particularly vulnerable demographic for eye disease and vision loss, can access Medicare rebates for a full eye exam every two years, as they could prior to January 2015.
“We also urge the Australian Government to introduce a bulk-bill incentive for optometry services for patients with a Commonwealth Concession card and for children under 16 years of age. Our recommendation is simply for optometry providers to be afforded the same recognition as general practitioners and diagnostic image providers,” she said.
For more information on optometry services in Australia, including our pre budget submission visit www.optometry.org.au.