Bulk-billing rates rising after decade of 'neglect'

A rise in the number of doctors choosing to take up general practice demonstrates the "green shoots of recovery" as bulk-billing rates improve, the health minister says.

The GP bulk-billing rate is continuing to rise, with the number of doctors taking up general practice also increasing.

More than a million extra trips to the doctor have been bulk-billed since November, with Australia's bulk-billing rate rising 3.4 per cent to 79 per cent in May, according to seven months of Medicare data.

The increase is being realised across all states and territories, with GP clinics around the country shifting back to bulk-billing.

Health Minister Mark Butler said the structural issues leading to the decline of doctors choosing general practice couldn't be instantly fixed, but progress was being made.

"I'm glad that we've seen an increase of almost 20 per cent this year," he told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.

Health Minister Mark Butler
Mark Butler says Medicare payments for bulk-billing doctors have increased dramatically. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

"That's going to take some years to work through the system.

"This structural decline that we've seen for years now. It can't be turned around overnight but we are starting to see the green shoots of recovery."

The government's move to triple bulk-billing incentives was fuelling the rise in bulk billing, he said.

"Since it kicked in ... it has started to rise in every single state and territory in the federation in seven months, delivering 1.7 million additional visits," he said.

Medicare payments for doctors in major cities who bulk bill for a standard consult had increased by 34 per cent, while rural and regional doctors had received an extra 50 per cent, Mr Butler said.

An AAP fact check of claims previously made by Mr Butler that bulk billing rates for doctor visits were in "free fall" when Labor came to government in 2022, were misleading.

The proportion of GP visits that were bulk billed increased throughout the coalition's almost decade in power, rising from 83 per cent in December 2013 to about 87 per cent at the time of the May 2022 election.

Bulk billing rates were falling prior to the federal election but dropped more rapidly after Labor formed government.

The proportion of GP visits bulk billed in the first quarter of 2024 was still around 10 percentage points lower than it was at the time of the 2022 election.

A Medicare card
The move to triple bulk-billing incentives has fuelled the rise in bulk billing, the minister says. (Tracey Nearmy/AAP PHOTOS)

The GP bulk-billing rate measures the proportion of all GP visits under Medicare that involve no patient payment.

States that historically have had lower bulk-billing rates have had the largest increases, with an 8.1 per cent rise in Tasmania, and a 5.5 per cent increase in the ACT.

NSW has the highest bulk-billing rate and is the only state to achieve more than 80 per cent, while the ACT has the lowest at 57 per cent.

The bulk-billing rate in all other states and the Northern Territory is in the 70s.

Families with children under 16, pensioners and other concession cardholders are finding it easier to see a bulk-billing doctor, the government said.

Together, these patients make up more than three out of five visits to a GP.