Australian patients forced to pay upfront for MRI scans

Patients referred by their general practitioner (GP) for an MRI at Bendigo Health in Victoria, Australia, are being forced to pay upfront for scans as the result of an announcement made during the country’s 2007 federal election campaign.

According to the Bendigo Advertiser, during the caretaker period, former Health Minister Tony Abbott announced that GPs would be able to request MRI scans for knees and one form of brain investigation beginning Jan.1, 2008.

The intention was to give specialists more time to focus their higher-level clinical responsibilities on more complex matters. As the implementation of the announcement was not finalized by the government, GPs who referred patients ahead of the change in the law have been caught short, reported the Bendigo Advertiser.

Luke Adorni, Bendigo Health's manager of medical imaging, said patients with GP referrals for MRI scans had been contacted to advise them they would be out of pocket for knee and multiple sclerosis investigations. Although the hospital has a Medicare license for the system, Adorni said it only allowed rebates for specific body parts.

"Most body areas are covered if referred by a specialist," he said. Knee and multiple sclerosis scans were covered only if the patient had been referred by a specialist, Adorni added.  He said medical imaging providers received no notification of the change from the current government until a "muted" communication from the Australian General Practice Network was received on Dec. 24.

A spokesman for federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon said no GPs should have made MRI referrals as they were originally meant to begin on Jan. 1 this year, but they had been advised of the change. He said a review of last year’s government announcement would be made within the next 12 months.