By Patrick Hutchens
Optometry Australia has launched a new advocacy campaign aimed at encouraging the Australian Government to ensure optometric services are made more accessible, particularly for disadvantaged Australians.
The campaign, ‘Eye care for all: Fairer and smarter Medicare for optometry’ will focus on lobbying the Australian Government and Members of Parliament to support greater investment in Medicare-funded optometry and reduce inequities in access among vulnerable members of the community.
The organisation has made a submission to the 2015-2016 Federal Budget, which includes eight signature recommendations for how the Australian Government could improve fair access to optometric care while ensuring optometric services are sustainable, particularly in disadvantaged areas.
Chief among them will be a call to apply the same patient exemptions to the Medicare rebate reduction for optometry as those intended for general medical practice.
A five per cent cut to the optometry Medicare rebate implemented at the beginning of 2015 placed an added financial burden on patients and bulk-billing practices. It has raised fears that low-income patients will avoid optometric services because of increased out-of-pocket costs.
Optometry Australia proposes that the groups of patients that should be exempt from the rebate cut include children younger than 16 years, pensioners, concession card holders and those in residential aged-care facilities, as is the case for general practice.
Optometry Australia national policy manager Skye Cappuccio said cutting the optometric patient rebate threatened access to essential eye and vision care for patients on low incomes and in disadvantaged communities.
‘Cuts to the optometry Medicare rebate make it increasingly unsustainable for practices to bulk-bill high numbers of their patients, but the reality is that some patients can’t afford to pay more from their own pocket,’ Ms Cappuccio said.
‘Applying these patient exemptions from the Medicare rebate cut to optometry, where there has already been a precedent set for general practice, is a logical and affordable first step in helping to maintain access to essential eye care. It would mean that those patients who need it most would get a higher rebate for optometry consultations,’ she said.
Throughout February, March and April, the organisation will be engaging with key politicians, including the Health Minister Sussan Ley, Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash and Shadow Health Minister Catherine King, to encourage all sides of parliament to adopt elements of Optometry Australia’s budget submission.
Members lobby MPs
To increase the effectiveness of this lobbying effort, an important pillar of the equitable access campaign is an invitation to members to write to their local Federal MP to highlight the impact of Medicare changes on the delivery of optometric services to their patients.
Members can assist the organisation’s advocacy efforts by accessing a number of resources from the Optometry Australia website including a sample letter and letter-writing guide that can be used to support their grassroots involvement in the ‘Eye care for all’ campaign.
Other vital recommendations contained in the budget submission, to improve access to eye care, include reinstating the annual indexation of the Optometry Medicare Benefits Schedule (OMBS) consistent with the CPI, and increasing the OMBS domiciliary loading to encourage the provision of optometric services in residential aged-care facilities.
Recommendations have also been made with regard to the accessibility of optometric services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and for people living in rural and remote areas.
These ask the government for an extension of the Visiting Optometrists Scheme to support optometrists who provide services within urban Aboriginal Medical Services, and federal support for nationally-consistent Indigenous Subsidised Spectacle Schemes to help close the gap in eye health disparities and improve access to prescription glasses for Indigenous people.
Optometry Australia has also called for an Optometric Rural Sustainability Program under Medicare to encourage optometrists to continue to provide sustainable services in rural and remote areas.
It proposed that the government extends the Telehealth MBS to optometrists, allowing them to support patients in remote and very remote areas to access ophthalmologist care.
The Optometry Australia submission to the 2015-2016 Federal Budget, which includes all of the organisation’s recommendations, can be downloaded from the Optometry Australia website.
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Optometry Australia has provided a brochure, contained in the March issue of Australian Optometry, which targets politicians to inform them of the key priorities of the ‘Eye care for all’ campaign. Optometry Australia is asking members to include the brochure in the letter to their local MP.