Pomona clinic under threat
A POMONA medical centre servicing a huge range of patients is about to close because of Medicare financial penalties due to paperwork being "not good enough".
The three-doctor, 11-staff, 4000-patient Cooroora Family Practice in Station St - one of only two in the hinterland town and which additionally provides much-needed mental health services - will shortly close unless a buyer can be found for the 100 per cent bulk-billing business.
At a town meeting on Saturday, more than 150 concerned residents heard practice owner Ann Buchan's partner Coll Brosnan say Medicare had demanded that $360,000 owed by the practice due to penalties for administrative errors must be paid back in monthly instalments of $15,000, which the practice could not afford to meet.
Dr Buchan was too upset and stressed to attend the meeting, but Ms Brosnan told the audience Dr Buchan's ethical approach to patients meant she saw virtually everyone who asked for service, working 11-plus hour days, and served to help reduce patient attendances at public hospitals.
"Ann ethically ran this as the free medical service we are all entitled to, but the government doesn't see it that way," she said.
Ms Brosnan said Dr Buchan had been penalised, at a time when the practice was short of doctors, for seeing too many patients, with Medicare saying Dr Buchan "can't charge for this many patients".
"(The practice) had just passed accreditation with flying colours," she said.
"Two weeks later that's what they got her on: paperwork not up to scratch."
She acknowledged Dr Buchan was "not the best on paperwork" but "it's sent to Allied Health, but never once did they send anything back saying 'not good enough'."
Noosa state MP Sandy Bolton, who attended the meeting, acknowledged Medicare issues were federal, and the government was in caretaker mode during the election, but said "the most important thing is this clinic stays open".
"About 4000 people (from as far as Bundaberg) are serviced and bulk-billed here," Ms Bolton said.
She said she understood the practice was only being kept going at present due to Dr Buchan and Ms Brosnan dipping into their superannuation to do so.
Ms Bolton said she had managed to arrange for a Primary Health Network representative to attend the meeting, who said even though he'd only learned of the situation 48 hours prior "we are confident this practice will continue to exist".
"We have two agencies who said they are able to help in a short space of time," he said.
It is understood any prospective buyer or new principal of the practice would not inherit the outstanding Medicare debt.
Wide Bay federal MP Llew O'Brien said no one wanted the practice to close "and my priority is to ensure continuity of medical care, advice and treatment for the people of Pomona".
"My office has worked between the Health Minister's office, the Medicare compliance unit, and the practice to help the parties reach a satisfactory negotiated agreement, and as late as Friday the compliance unit confirmed that they are open to negotiations to keep practices open and I will continue to support the practice through this process," he said.
A Health Department spokesperson said due to confidentiality it could not comment directly on the matter.
"The Department of Health undertakes a range of compliance activities to ensure the integrity of Australia's health payments system," the spokesperson said.
"Where non-compliance is identified a debt is raised and debt collection processes commence. The Department seeks to recover the full amount owing by the due date. In some cases this may not be possible and negotiations then occur with the debtor to come to terms suitable to both parties for repayment of the debt. Debtors are invited to provide any potential financial hardship information. This is taken into account when negotiating a debt repayment plan.
"Where no suitable arrangements can be reached, the Department may escalate the collection action. Options under legislation passed by the Australian Parliament include compulsory deductions of up to 20% of the health provider's future Medicare billings or debtor's bank accounts can be garnished."