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GPs in 'most parlous state' since birth of Medicare

GP clinics are facing the most uncertainty since the beginning of Medicare, Health Minister Mark Butler has declared, ahead of the scheme's 40th anniversary.

Mr Butler has called for more GPs to offer up greater bulk billing rates for patients, following a tripling of the bulk billing incentive, which kicked in from November.

Speaking ahead of the 40th anniversary of Medicare's inception on February 1, Mr Butler said while there had been an uptick in bulk billing rates following the incentive, more was needed to be done.

"General practice, I think, has been in the most parlous state in the now 40-year history of Medicare, and that is why, unapologetically, we have focused so squarely on getting general practice back in its feet," he told reporters on Monday.

"When a general practice is not working, you see that reverberate through hospital emergency departments."

Health Minister Mark Butler
Mark Butler says more work is needed to improve bulk billing rates. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

Mr Butler said there had been anecdotal evidence of a return to GPs offering bulk billing to concession card holders, children and pensioners after the incentive was tripled.

However, he said the government was looking at improving bulk billing further at clinics, particularly those who don't offer it.

"We're monitoring this really closely, we know healthcare is important, and we simply can't have a situation where Australians feel unable to take medicines their doctors have prescribed for them or feel unable to go to a doctor because of affordability questions," he said.

"We're keeping a very close eye on gap fees, on general practice charging behaviour right across the population."

The minister indicated data would be coming through about bulk billing rates following the incentive changes.

A GP medical clinic in Sydney (file image)
The government is monitoring gap fees and general practice charging behaviour. (Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS)

It comes as a commemorative version of the Medicare card will be available from Thursday to mark the 40th anniversary of the health scheme.

Like standard Medicare cards, the commemorative ones will be valid for five years.

Mr Butler said the new cards will join the 15 million other standard Medicare cards in circulation that provide free or subsided healthcare for Australians.

"Along with the age pension, perhaps there is no more important element in Australia's social fabric than Medicare," Mr Butler said.

"Forty years on, it's important to recognise ... that it was hard fought.

"Universal health insurance was perhaps the most defining fault line in national politics in this country since the late 1960s."

Medicare began operations on February 1, 1984, under the Hawke government, under a similar health care system to the original Medibank scheme set up by then-prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1975.

An exhibition will also go on display marking the anniversary, first at Parliament House in Canberra before travelling to other centres across Australia.