Only 20 doctors sign up to government’s $24 million Medical Costs Finder website

A $24 million website designed to allow Australians to compare the costs of medical procedures was used by just 20 doctors nationwide to show their fees, it has been revealed.

Medical Costs Finder, a $2.5 million initiative launched in 2019 as part of the Coalition, was intended to enable patients to seek affordable care.

The previous government allocated an additional $17 million in 2020 to improve the website and encourage individual doctors to list their fees, in a bid to give patients greater transparency over out-of-pocket costs.

But a Senate hearing on the estimates on Thursday revealed that so far only 20 doctors had voluntarily listed their fees, equivalent, in the words of independent senator David Pocock, to “over a million dollars per doctor on the website.”

The revelation, reminiscent of the Rudd Labor government’s failed GroceryWatch and FuelWatch websites, came as the ACT senator was questioning Department of Health officials about “staggering” surgical costs paid out of pocket by private patients in the territory , citing data from Private Healthcare Australia.

According to the private health insurance peak body, ACT residents pay at least 50% more than other parts of the country: a typical knee replacement in the ACT costs $4,508, cataract surgery $1,575, a prostate surgery $2,568, a shoulder reconstruction $3,500 and a gallbladder surgery $2,165. .

Pocock said he found the difference “disconcerting,” noting that gallbladder removal in other states costs $600 or less.

Department of Health deputy secretary Penny Shakespeare responded that the higher out-of-pocket costs were the result of prices set by individual surgeons and recommended that patients use the Medical Costs Finder to compare rates.

When Mr Pocock then asked how many doctors’ fees were shown on the website, he was stunned when Department of Health official Brian Kelleher confirmed the national number was just 20.

“Ms Shakespeare, you just told me that people can go to the website and see the different fees and make a decision and now you tell me your website has 20 doctors in Australia with their fees,” Pocock said, as first reported by The Guardian.

Ms Shakespeare responded: “There are several parts to the website. There are individual doctors who can disclose their particular rates and then we have average rates broken down by jurisdictions.”

The senator pressed: “How does this help people shop around if there are 20 doctors with their fees?”

Kelleher said 640,000 people have visited the website, which provides information on 1,300 medical items and 150 services, but Pocock suggested that “the vast majority of people who visit (are) bitterly disappointed.”

Health Minister Mark Butler pointed the finger at the Coalition.

“The previous government did nothing to make the Medical Costs Finder a useful tool for consumers,” Butler said in a statement Friday.

“It is a service left to gather dust and which does not guarantee transparency on out-of-pocket costs. I have asked my department for advice on how we can improve the current medical cost search tool and transparency.”

Butler said the government was “committed to working with consumers, universities and private healthcare providers to improve the transparency of out-of-pocket costs for specialist medical services”.

The opposition has been contacted for comment.

Morgan Begg, director of policy at the Institute of Public Affairs, said that the fact that “millions of dollars have been wasted on a frivolous medical costs research site is yet another reminder of the utter contempt governments have for the money that belongs to hardworking taxpayers.” .

“This latest example follows revelations that the NDIS wasted $2 billion on items not included in customers’ packages but were instead spent on cars, holidays and even illegal drugs, as well as more than $600,000 in one speechwriter,” he said.

“The federal government continues to find new, innovative ways to waste our money in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis on things that really don’t provide a service or benefit to the community at all.”

In a statement on Thursday, Private Healthcare Australia called on the government to force doctors to list their fees on the website.

The peak body said its data shows out-of-pocket costs for common procedures in private hospitals have risen by up to 300% over the past five years.

“It is simply not possible for health funds to continuously chase rising out-of-pocket costs without contributing to hyperinflation in the healthcare sector, which leads to higher premiums,” said Dr Rachel David, chief executive of Private Healthcare Australia.

“With the cost of living rising and out-of-pocket medical expenses rising, it is time for the government to step in and publish doctors’ fees on the Medical Cost Finder website. It was also revealed in today’s Senate estimates that just 20 doctors had listed their fees on the Medical Costs Finder website, which cost taxpayers $24.2 million to create. As ACT Senator David Pocock pointed out, that’s $1 million per doctor.”

Dr. David said consumers “should be able to check what doctors charge and shop around, even if it means crossing state lines.”

“Paying more for treatment does not guarantee a better outcome,” he said.

“We must do everything we can to protect consumers with private health insurance from exorbitant bills. This will keep our private sector strong and keep the pressure off the public system.”

frank.chung@news.com.au

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