Australian Pathology Calls For Increased Funding to Sector

Access to bulk billed pathology services in Australia could be at risk, says the national peak body Australian Pathology. The sector has experienced an ongoing indexation freeze for over twenty years, meaning the amount of funding they receive has not gone up during that time.

Ahead of the upcoming Federal Budget, Australian Pathology has called for an injection of $630 million dollars to the sector over the next four years, in order to keep up with increased costs. 70% of medical treatment decisions rely on pathology – from diabetes to cancer and everything in between. Currently 99.6% of pathology services are bulk billed in Australia, but if costs continue to increase this could change.

Liesel Wett, CEO of Australian Pathology, says that this funding would allow pathology clinics to keep offering bulk billed services for Australian’s in need.

“At the moment, the pathologists and the pathology laboratories are getting squeezed. And so we need that investment. We’re the only part of the Medicare schedule that is not indexed, and has not had an increase for 24 years. So we think it’s about time and we’re facing the pressures like everyone else.”

“Companies are looking at their ability to keep bulk billing right now. They’re doing that because they know that their costs have increased and there are things that they need to do to make sure that they continue to be viable [and] be able to deliver services.”

If the funding is not approved, there are fears that this could cost at-risk Australians access to necessary healthcare. Although there are over six thousand collection sites across the country, Ms Wett says that Australians in regional and rural Australia are more likely to lose access.

“The first thing that companies will probably do is have a look at their footprint, their physical collection sites, their small rural and regional laboratories, and they might start withdrawing those services.”

If this were to happen, it could see people losing their jobs, as services in those areas are withdrawn. 50% of the cost of delivering pathology services in the country goes towards the workforce, both the medical professionals and those who run the business. If clinics were to shut down, not only would Australians lose access to the service, but those employees would be out of a job.

Between July 2022 and December 2023, the Federal Government has invested over $5 billion dollars in Medicare benefits for pathology patients. A spokesperson for Health and Aged Car Minister Mark Butler says that the government will continue to work with the sector to ensure ongoing bulk billing.

“The Government also routinely invests in updating the Pathology Services Table (PST) to ensure that the services available under Medicare align with contemporary clinical best practice in response to recommendations from the Medical Services Advisory Committee (MSAC). From 1 January 2020 to 31 January 2024, the Government introduced 71 new pathology items on the PST (excluding COVID-19 pathology items), such that Medicare now provides rebates for more than 500 pathology tests. Over this period, the Government’s total annual investment in non-COVID-19 pathology services has increased by approximately $333 million in benefits, totalling $3.4 billion in 2023.

The Government will continue to consider MSAC recommendations for public funding of pathology services and will work with the pathology sector to consider how best to ensure the high bulk-billing rates continue, including by exploring indexation changes.”

The last thing Ms Wett wants to see is the loss of accessible pathology services.

“What we really want to be able to do is to keep those tests bulk billed because we don’t want to create a barrier for access for consumers for these really important tests.”

The Federal Budget is due to be announced on the 14th of May.