By Patrick Hutchens
René Nassar, an optometrist based in St Mary’s in Sydney’s west, fears that without the bulk-billing services that he provides, many of his patients will go without eye care.
Mr Nassar’s practice, which has no private billing, is under threat from loss of income as a result of some of the changes made to the Medicare Benefits Schedule at the beginning of the year.
The five per cent cut to the optometric Medicare rebate and the switch to comprehensive eye examinations accessible every three years for patients aged younger than 65 years, instead of every two years, has abruptly placed pressure on his business.
Mr Nassar is a consulting-only optometrist and described the future of his practice in its current low socio-economic location as ‘bleak’. Staying in St Mary’s will require him to recover at least the revenue that he used to make through bulk-billed consultations.
On the day Australian Optometry spoke with Mr Nassar, he calculated a 17 per cent drop in income as a result of the reduced income he was receiving through consulting fees.
‘I will have to look at moving to a more affluent area, which will then mean that everyone in this area who has been serviced by me, who has been provided with glasses and service, will no longer get it,’ he said.
‘If I was to go, then people would have to travel further and a lot of my patients are not able to travel. There are people in wheelchairs. It would make life very hard for them,’ he said.
The practice is in a bind. Many of Mr Nassar’s patients book appointments with him because they are seeking his vision care services and access to the NSW spectacles program, which Mr Nassar’s dispensing business partner handles.
By definition, patients accessing free spectacles through the program have less than $500 in their bank accounts.
For this reason, Mr Nassar believes it is likely that many of his patients would be incapable of paying up-front optometric fees, even if they were able to reclaim their rebate within minutes through the Medicare Easyclaim system.
Because of the many disadvantaged people who comprise the majority of Mr Nassar’s patients, simply switching to private billing and raising consulting fees is not a viable option.
‘It’s not sustainable. If it goes on for 12 months, I will be out of here,’ he said.
Optometrists servicing large numbers of disadvantaged patients may relate closely to Mr Nassar’s experience. Mr Nassar contacted Optometry Australia following a call in this newspaper, inviting members to take part in a grassroots letter-writing campaign to Members of Parliament.
Through its new advocacy campaign, ‘Eye Care for All: Fairer and Smarter Medicare for Optometry’, Optometry Australia is calling on members to write letters to their local Members of Parliament, to express their concern about how the recent Medicare changes are affecting their patients’ ability to access eye-care services.
Information about the ‘Eye Care for All’ campaign and ways in which members can assist are available on the Optometry Australia website.