Low-paid working families are being forced closer to the poverty line by rapidly rising health costs, the ACTU will tell the Senate’s inquiry into poverty today.

ACTU President Sharan Burrow said the Federal Government’s changes to Medicare announced this week would further increase health costs for families already struggling with rising medical fees and pharmaceutical expenses.

“Working families on low-to-median incomes and without a health care card will be hit hardest by John Howard’s Medicare changes because there will be no incentive for GPs to bulk-bill them,” Ms Burrow said.

The ACTU estimates that a working family with two children and an average number of doctor visits will face an extra $500 a year in fees for formerly free bulk-billed GP visits and pathology tests under the Government’s proposed Medicare changes.

Bureau of Statistics Consumer Price Index (CPI) data last week showed that health costs increased by 7.2% in the year to March – more than any other CPI group except education.

“Increases in health costs (up 7.2%) in the last year far exceeded price rises for food (3.9%) and transport (5%), which were driven up by the drought and the war in Iraq. More people are being forced to pay to see a doctor because of the decline in bulk billing,” Ms Burrow said.

Health Insurance Commission data shows that the proportion of GP visits being bulk-billed has fallen to 69%, down from 80% when John Howard took office. The out-of-pocket costs for seeing a non-bulk-billing doctor have risen by 16.6% in the last two years, with patients on average paying $12.78 per GP visit after receiving the Medicare rebate.

“John Howard’s changes will make it easier for doctors to increase fees because they will not have to charge patients for the full cost up front. Allowing GPs to charge only for ‘gap’ costs will end the effective restraint on doctors’ fees that has been an essential part of Medicare since it began in 1984,” Ms Burrow said.

“Working people already pay for Medicare through their general taxes and the Medicare Levy. They should not have to pay a third time through John Howard’s co-payment.”

Ms Burrow will give evidence to the Senate inquiry into poverty today at 2pm AEST in the Bellarine Room 2, Level 4, Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre, Cnr Spencer and Flinders Street, Melbourne, 3000