Tag Archives: Fees

Tackling the Health Bureaucracy

Government Bundles another GP agreement

There is a sense of “deja vu” today, as the Kangaroo Island doctors gear up for another tedious battle with the bureaucrats at Country Health SA.

You can read more in the media release below :

Media Release 4-3-13 KI Docs

The Island doctors have been told that the status quo (them providing 21 days out of 28 for the A&E on call roster … as well as complete 365 day cover for each of the anaesthetics & obstetrics rosters) is to come to an end on 1st April 2013.

The reason? Health bureaucrats demand that Island Doctors assume responsibility for the entire A&E roster, begging the question of ‘whose Hospital is it anyway‘? If they don’t, then the doctors will be removed from the A&E roster. Currently a locum does one week per month A&E on call, at a cost borne by the Health Department. To replace the local doctors will require a locum every day of the week – costing the Health Department even more. I’m no economist, but it seems an ‘interesting’ decision financially and one for which bureaucrats seem to be unaccountable.

Elsewhere in Australia, high fees paid to locums tend to drive out resident doctors, who also have to bear practice costs. There’s also a sense of deja vu – back in 2010 the Health Department replaced the Island doctors with locums – not only costing much, much more than the local doctors, but also leading to a significant drop in service (locums who could not plaster or insert an IV cannula were notable “fails”). One locum even fled after only a few hours, citing the ‘unbearable workload’.

So there you have it – local doctors no longer allowed to provide A&E services from 1st April 2013. The threat has been made by CHSA bureaucrats that anaesthetic and obstetric rosters will also be dissolved.

NOW is the time for the Kangaroo Island community to act if they want their doctors to remain able to treat them in A&E, deliver their babies or provide emergency & elective anaesthetics.

Hit the airwaves (891 Adelaide, fiveAA), write to the media (The Islander, The Advertiser), and tell the State Health Minister what you think.

Lack of accountability

Of course this is not the only problem the island doctors have had with Country Health SA. A colleague has described trying to deal with their bureaucracy as like ‘fighting candy floss’ – with meetings un-minuted, calls unanswered and a refusal to engage in meaningful or timely negotiations, it is very hard to get clear answers. There also appears to be a lack of institutional memory regarding previous decisions. We are not alone – the recently-departed Penola GP (who quit after being required to work a ludicrous 24:7 on call for over a year) has also hit out at the bungling Country Health SA bureaucracy.

Stand out gripes for recent times on KI include :

– failure to negotiate a new contract.

The previous expired in Nov 2011 and a ‘new’ contract was finally put to rural doctors in mid-2012. We are now in 2013…and rather than negotiate for a continuation of the status quo, CHSA have suggested the above

– failure to pay doctors under fee-for-service.

Of course I cannot discuss specific patient cases, but I can say that I am still chasing payment for in-patient services dating back to April last year. A common policy seems to be for the Hospital to call for a Doctor urgently to render assistance…then the urgency of that call to be disputed some months later by a pay clerk. Suffice it to say, call out fees differ if urgent vs non-urgent, the premium being to compensate urgency and impact on own clinic patients who have to wait. There is also a monthly battle over admitted vs non-admitted services – the former payable under fee-for-service, the latter charged as a private fee to the patient. Again CountryHealthSA seems to have a low threshold for calling the duty doctor – then arguing about payment later.

I am now owed thousands of dollars by CountryHealthSA over admitted patient fees. Sadly the agreed “dispute process” has lead to a series of unanswered emails and written demands for payment over months. Despite this I have kept on working at the Hospital, but it seems there is no accountability within the organisation to resolve this…

– the anaesthetic monitor fiasco.

Unbeknownst to any of the rural doctors (including the Country Health SA clinical lead for Anaesthetics), our existing monitors were replaced by new ones, reputedly costing $17,000 each. Estimates are that there has been over $500K spent across rural SA – despite the fact that these monitors were not needed (standards not mandatory) and replaced perfectly good existing equipment. This money spent even though we cannot get vital emergency equipment for our hospitals because “no money available’.

Jack Snelling is the Health Minister and perhaps should take note. The Health Dept needs to save $1 billion over five years. Perhaps some savings could be made within the bureaucracy?

So whilst all this hassle is going on, I am looking forward to a few weeks off and the chance to catch up with fellow #FOAMites at SMACC2013. Will be talking at 13:30 Tuesday 12/3/13 on ‘improving rural pre-hospital care in Australia’. Come along and heckle…

SMACC FINAL PROGRAM

BASICS model for Oz?

Country Emergency Department Fees

Well I’ve just received a letter from the Federal Health Minister which seems to broadly confirm my suspicions that the charging of fees for country patients attending a public hospital ED is incorrect.

You may need to click and open separately to view



Of course there is a grey area in what is a ‘GP after hours’ type attendance and what is an emergency attendance – and with that comes the potential for massive cost-shifting from the State (charged with providing free public emergency treatment) and the Commonwealth (providing Medicare compensable services).


Country patients are caught up in this, as in South Australia they have been charged fees for attending the ED in rural hospitals. Now historically there was an arrangement (not defined in a contract, but in an agreed schedule of fees for paying doctors called SARMFA) that allowed a rural doctor to charge a private fee in circumstances where a patient requested private treatment by a particular doctor, or where care was provided in the country hospital as part of ongoing care or prior arrangement.


This seems a sensible compromise to allow rural doctors to attend patients at the hospital both in and after hours for GP-type consultations or private care. Example might be an agreement between doctor and patient to meet at the hospital after routine consulting for a review of an eye injury, utilising the hospital’s slit-lamp. or arranging to be seen for a skin excision or to administer intravenous therapy.


All well and good.


Then in 2010 a new contract (in fact the first time a written arrangement about rights & responsibilities) between CHSA and rural doctors came into being. This is a good thing and it was hoped that would create a level-playing field with rural doctors getting equivalent deals, rather than the hotch-potch of ‘local deals’ that saw some doctors getting lucrative locum rates for being oncall, others struggling to balance the impact of providing oncall work for the hospital with their private practice.


The negotiating teams of both AMA and RDASA invested a lot of time and effort into getting the ‘best deal’, but as time wore on the AMA walked away from the offer whilst the RDASA recommended to their members on a temporary basis, expecting a new and better deal to be negotiated by the end of November 2011.


My concern has been that, for the first time, there is a contract that is explicit about the charging of fees. Whilst the SA Health Minister acknowledges that CHSA are responsible for the provision of public emergency services in the country, there is a catch. The contract specifies that only ADMITTED patients are entitled to free treatment – non-admitted patients are to be charged by the attending doctor.


This seems to fudge the previous arrangement designed for private services or ongoing care between patient and treating doctor. Instead, people who present to a rural ED in South Australia are charged fees unless they are admitted….and yet patients with similar problems who go to a metro ED are provided the service for free.


The Health Minister says this is because rural hospitals do not have a salaried medical officer on site. Fair enough. I’d just argue that if the Hospital feels they need to call in a doctor, that that doctor is paid for their services – and the patient does not.


Of course, if the patient presentation is trivial (a GP-type attendance) then it would be appropriate to divert them to a GP-after hours service or to GP clinic the next day – and Medicare or private fees would apply.


It’s all down to definition. What is an admitted patient? The bean-counters take the view that a patient has to be present for > 4 hours, although occasionally this requirement can be relaxed for certain things (type C attendances, a definition derived from mostly day surgery units).


So we have a position now enshrined in a contract, where rural patients may be charged for things like reduction of a fracture, IV fluids, X-rays, assessment after a car crash, mental health emergency in a country ED…on the basis that these are ‘GP services’. These are things that a GP in the city may well refer patients to an ED for.


Medicare advisors tell me this is illegal and that doctors should not charge for such non-admitted ED services where patients attend a public ED. The Dept of Health & Ageing letter suggests the same.


The only explanation from CHSA is that this is allowed because of a ‘longstanding arrangement for treatment of private patients as part of ongoing care or prior arrangement by a specific doctor’. 


I am all for this – when such care is agreed and is genuinely private. I have no qualms charging a private fee for my private GP services. 


Seems hard to explain that all this to the carload of NSW tourists who have crashed and seek assistance at the local hospital only to be saddled with a bill. Or the patient with a fracture-dislocation that requires X-ray/reduction/plastering…and many more examples.  Understandably some patients refuse to pay on the basis that they are attending an ED. CHSA insists that the doctor charges Medicare..who say that this practice is illegal…and CHSA doesn’t answer this query.


So, where are we at now?


There have been two extensions to the rural doctors contract (which was to expire 30/11/11) so far…the current extension ends in just under four weeks and still no contract offer available for perusal.


In an effort to address this anomaly, RDASA had proposed that triage 1-2-3 patients are to receive free treatment. Seems fair, although it does ignore the issue that triage is just about treatment priority, not complexity and is ill-suited to decisions about whether ED attendance is appropriate or not. There is a myth that triage 4/5 patients are ‘GP-type’ presentations, when in fact these patients are often elderly, complex and require admission or the services of an ED not a GP (minor fractures, plastering, X-ray etc). ACEM have issued a media release on this which is informative.


Despite that, I’m still struggling to get paid for attending a triage 1 call in…with CHSA insisting the patient be billed under Medicare.


So, there you have it. 


– A contract that seems to be in breach of the National Healthcare Agreement.
– Cost-shifting fees onto patients who are already rurally disadvantaged. 
– And only a few weeks to go until the most recent contract negotiation expires.


Really, is this any way to do business? It seems that Country Health SA hold both rural patients and the medical workforce with a lack of respect. I despair, because this sort of thing does little to encourage recruitment and retention of rural doctors to South Australia.


I guess there’s no votes in the bush.

Had a gutful

Well, it’s kind of ironic that over the weekend there’s been a small flurry of interest in the issue of non-admitted hospital patients being charged a fee in South Australian country hospitals (see The Australian p7 24/3/12)…and yet at the same time this issue arose locally.


I understand that the Minister of Health is not a happy bunny currently – being the Health Minister must be an unforgiveable job, especially when the budget is squeezed tight. 


And I’ve recently been criticised for raising this issue – on the basis that it’s been going on for a while and may impact on doctor’s hip pockets (some rural docs are doing OK charging a $50 gap for non-admitted patients and may be reluctant to see a change in the status quo). 


It’s also a fairly intense time at the moment – the contract between Country Health SA and rural doctors remains ‘in negotiation’ – even though a finalised deal was supposed to have been in place by 30/11/11…and we are on our second 3 month extension. There may be anxiety that politicising this issue will affect negotiations.


I agree and think this issue transcends whichever party is currently in power.


Anyhow I was on for anaesthetics this weekend and was called in by the hospital for a ‘cardiac arrest’. I arrived ahead of the A&E oncall doctor and the patient, who was transported by ambulance.  


Suffice it to say that when they arrived at the hospital, the patient was very much alive and indeed combative from another cause. 


After a quick ABC assessment I was stood down and left the patient in the capable hands of my A&E colleague. I understand that the patient left the ED some time later, discharged to the care of a capable adult.


Today I emailed the head of Country Health fee-for-service, asking how this attendance should be billed.


The response? Well, as the patient was not admitted, it is apparently ‘a private matter between the patient and the doctor and CHSA is not liable


I’ve had a gutful of this. I really don’t mind being called in, whatever the hour, whatever the reason. If the hospital feels they need my services, and I am oncall, then I am available and will come in.


But to then turn around and say they won’t pay?


Now, this will no doubt be sorted out after the usual barrage of emails to-and-fro until someone (usually the CHSA medical advisor) makes a determination. I will expend many hours chasing the debt, my BP will climb…but ultimately I will get paid.


But it is all so tedious and mind-mumbingly unnecessary. I am fed up with having to chase payment from a health service that seems to apply rules inflexibly and illogically.


I sure as hell am not going to charge the patient – they arrived by ambulance with four paramedics in attendance, two doctors, extra nursing staff etc and were transported to the appropriate place – a nice shiny hospital.


My expectation is that if the hospital feels a matter is urgent, and calls a doctor, then they should pay that doctor regardless of outcome, of subsequent diagnosis or of triage score. I think most common sense people would agree. However the wording of current arrangements opens the door to cost-shifting from State funds (public hospital) to the patient (Medicare reimbursement if compensable).


I don’t care, I just want to get paid without fighting every bloody time!


Is this really so unreasonable or hard to understand?