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New AMA boss to pressure government on $7 co-payment

Canberra Times logo Canberra Times 26/05/2014 Kirsten Lawson
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The new president of the Australian Medical Association, Brian Owler, has indicated no let-up in the fight against the $7 budget co-payment for GP visits and medical tests.

The peak doctors' group looks set to fight the payment by highlighting the people it will hurt - such as the "young woman with a breast lump", who the AMA suggests could be an extra $63 out of pocket in co-payments alone by the time she had a mammogram, ultrasound, biopsies, pathology and follow-up GP visits.

Dr Owler is possibly most widely known as the face of the "Don't Rush" road safety advertising campaign, in which he stares close down the camera and delivers sharp multiple-choice questions such as these: "Would you rather (a) be a few minutes late for the family lunch, or (b) speed, hit a pole, make your wife a paraplegic."

Associate Professor Owler, a neurosurgeon at Westmead Hospital and president of the AMA's NSW branch, was elected national president in Canberra yesterday, beating rival candidate Professor Geoffrey Dobb, head of intensive care at Royal Perth Hospital.

Speaking to the media, Professor Owler said the AMA was not against the co-payment in principle but was concerned about the impact on people with chronic illnesses and its imposition on the range of medical tests - not only GP visits but prescriptions, blood tests, pathology, radiology and other areas.

The $7 co-payment is being introduced as a $5 reduction in the Medicare levy from the government to doctors and an extra $2 that doctors can keep. Treasurer Joe Hockey has suggested that will help GPs offset the cost of bulkbilling patients who need the help. But Professor Owler dismissed the concept.

"The idea that by getting $2 extra in the co-payment from other patients that you’re going to then use that money as a slush fund to institute the government's social welfare policy I think is insulting to general practitioners and other practitioners," he said.

Professor Owler is active on Twitter and has been open to the media, allowing a Fairfax photographer to follow two brain-surgeries on children late last year.

He has been a strong campaigner for alcohol reform and said he would ask Prime Minster Tony Abbott for a national summit on the problem.

"We also need to change the attitudes that we have built up around alcohol," he said. "For far too long we've been sold a dud by advertisers and marketers that it's normal to drink alcohol excessively, that it's part of the Australian culture," he said.

He pointed to advertising in sport and marketing to young people as key areas for reform, drawing a parallel with the ban on tobacco advertising in sport. But he stopped short of calling for a ban on alcohol advertising in sport, acknowledging that sporting codes relied on the income.

Professor Owler has been a strong supporter of alcohol restrictions in Newcastle. "The modest suite of measures, which includes lockouts, reduced trading hours and restrictions on high-alcohol-content drinks, introduced in Newcastle in 2008, has since resulted in a reduction of more than 35 per cent in late-night assaults and a 29 per cent decrease in assault-related admission to the emergency department," he wrote in 2012.

"This is a staggering figure. If a new medical treatment were shown to reduce damage by more than 35 per cent, it would be adopted as best practice."

Melbourne emergency physician Dr Stephen Parnis, elected vice-president of the peak doctors' group, said he could not see how a co-payment could work at emergency departments, since the decision about whether a visit should be classed as an emergency was not made until after the patient was treated. He also pointed to the dangers of any delay in treating people.

Professor Owler replaces Dr Steve Hambleton.

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