‘Sense of duty’ prompts GPs to join vax rollout

5 minute read

With the window to submit an EOI quickly closing, The Medical Republic asked GP practices whether they planned to take part and found them evenly split.

With expressions of interest for delivering the COVID-19 vaccine closing tonight, practice managers are torn as to whether they can meet the requirements and wear the financial loss of participating.

General practices have been under significant pressure, with the government allowing just over one week – a week that included a public holiday and the start of the school year – to submit an EOI after releasing vaccine rollout information.

Adding to the chaos, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced on Sunday – just one day out from the EOI deadline – that ‘at least’ 2000 general practices will be delivering the vaccine, up from the initial estimate of 1000. He also announced pharmacies will join the vaccine rollout from phase 2a onward, with a separate pharmacist EOI issued today.

Since the Department of Health revealed the Medicare item numbers for administering the COVID vaccine (see below), there has been debate on social media as to whether it is financially viable for GP practices to take part.

The Medical Republic contacted almost 50 practices and spoke to more than a dozen that were eligible to sign up. Of those, five confirmed they were submitting an EOI, five confirmed they were not and three were undecided.

Those who were willing to take part were doing so out of a sense of duty to their community, which they felt outweighed any potential losses.

“It was something the practice principals are interested in doing because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event,” said Zoey Harper, practice manager at Drayton Medical Centre in regional Queensland.

“We still submitted our expression of interest, but they are expecting a fair bit in terms of how long patients have to wait afterward, and all the training that’s necessary for all the nurses – a lot of our staff don’t have time for extra things like that.”

These requirements were a common pain point, and several practice managers told TMR they felt the logistics of delivering the vaccine made it too complex for smaller practices to participate.

Monique Cleal, practice manager at Cavenagh Medical Centre in Darwin, said the key reason her clinic decided against submitting an EOI was in relation to the stringent guidelines, rather than the low Medicare rebate.

“The size of the operation they want to set up doesn’t seem feasible for a GP clinic,” Ms Cleal said.

Dr Andrew Baird, a GP practising in Melbourne, said his clinic would be too physically small to adhere to the requirements.

“We’ve got two consulting rooms, a narrow corridor and a small waiting area,” Dr Baird said.

“We could not have people waiting for the vaccine and being observed afterwards as well as passing safely in the corridor with social distancing, so we would not be able to do it unless we had people sitting outside the clinic.”

In a wider sense, Dr Baird felt the government was not providing enough support for GPs.

“It’s not that the requirements are wrong,” he said. “It’s just that it’s putting a big imposition on general practices.”

With vaccinations set to commence in just one month, even the practices that do wish to participate have limited time to implement the infrastructure and training requirements needed. Jonathan Lee, practice manager at Maxim Street Family Practice, said even just preparing to meet the expectations of the EOI was a time-intensive exercise.

“The expression of interest specifically says they want the clinic to be a designated COVID vaccine clinic, with a separate waiting area and enough space,” said Mr Lee. “That is very difficult for even larger practices to be able to do.

“In terms of funding, the government has specified we have to bill the smallest item number that we charge, which is about $30, to the doctor. At that amount, we need to see at least eight to 10 patients per hour to make it viable.”

Another consideration Mr Lee mentioned is the cost of refrigerating the vaccine; his practice has already purchased new fridges, worth roughly $4000 each.

“We are preparing our infrastructure for whatever comes, but we’re still not 100% certain that we’re going to take part.”

The EOI portal closes tonight at 11:59pm AWST (Monday 1 February).

The Department of Health has said that practices that do not wish to participate in phase 1b of the rollout will have the opportunity to be involved in later stages.

MBS items numbers for Astra-Zeneca vaccine

GPs working in MMM1 areas will receive a $30.75 rebate for administering the first vaccine, and a $24.25 rebate for administering the second dose.

GPs in MMM2-7, meanwhile, will receive $37.35 for the first dose and $27.55 for the second.

Doctors working after hours can claim slightly more; MMM1 GPs can claim $42.90 and $36.40 for the first and second dose respectively, while MMM2 GPs can claim $49.50 and $39.70.

Practices able to provide the same patient with both vaccine doses will also be eligible for a PIP incentive of $10 per patient.

Further details relating to the vaccine, such as the timeframe between doses, will be made available when the Therapeutic Goods Administration gives its approval.

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