7 December 2021

Voluntary patient registration: good or bad?

Political RACGP TheHill

Square up! One GP leader says enrolment will promote integrated care, another says it’s bait and switch.

Depending on who you speak to, voluntary patient enrolment is either “the same funding for a more bureaucratic workload” or a pathway back “toward the generalistic, longitudinal care” of old. 

The former view comes from Dr Chris Irwin, president of young lobby group the Australian Society of General Practice, while the latter is RACGP president Dr Karen Price’s perspective. 

Versions of voluntary patient registration (VPR) have been floated multiple times, but its most recent iteration comes from the Primary Healthcare 10 Year Plan draft. 

The main details, as set out in the 10-year plan, are as follows: 

  • The government will invest $69 million in Services Australia to create a VPR scheme.
  • To be eligible for registration, patients must visit a practice three times in a two-year span, and then once every two years thereafter to maintain registration. 
  • Only registered patients will be able to access MBS-funded telehealth. 
  • Over the next decade, the government predicts that payments linked to “quality and outcomes measures”, rather than fee-for-service, will make up 40% of primary care funding.

In their responses to the plan, both the GP colleges and the AMA lent in principle support to VPR but called for more detail on how it would be funded. 

Former AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton, who co-chaired the Primary Health Reform Steering Group that helped develop the VPR proposal, said that it was the RACGP who initially came up with the idea.

“Voluntary patient registration or voluntary patient nomination or strengthening the link between the patient, the practice and the practitioner has been on the table for a decade,” he said. 

Over that time, he said, it has become increasingly clear that the current fee-for-service model is more focussed on throughput than patient need. 

“Frankly, Medicare was designed 35 years ago, when the majority of problems could be handled by a single visit,” Dr Hambleton said. 

“But now a major problem in the community is chronic and complex disease that requires longitudinal and team-based care, and one of the underlying platforms to deliver that is through voluntary patient registration.” 

While ASGP’s president agreed that having long-term patient physician relationships was important, he felt VPR was not the right model. 

“The government’s approach to primary care over the last two decades has been one not focused on improving patient outcomes but focused on cost containment, cost cutting and increasing bureaucratic control,” Dr Irwin told The Medical Republic. 

“Our position is that we’re extremely cautious and concerned about voluntary patient enrolment as the thin wedge towards increasing capitation when we’re not dealing with partners that have the same goals as we do.” 

His fear is that VPR will be a bait-and-switch in that the extra funding promised for quality and outcomes payments will only be realised by cutting fee-for-service. 

“What the NHS did was smart,” Dr Irwin said. 

“They gave doctors golden handcuffs – initially, they increased funding by 10% or 20%, and then when everyone jumped on board [capitation], the cuts started coming.” 

Dr Irwin said ASGP would rather see fee-for-service properly funded than a new payment model introduced. 

Abandoning fee-for-service, he argued, is far from inevitable.

“The idea that we either have to collude with a government that wishes to further constrain general practice or not collude and face worse outcomes is, I think, a false dichotomy,” he said. 

“The government has shown through covid that if something is politically dangerous, they’re willing to spend hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to fix problems.”

Dr Price, on the other hand, told TMR that now was the right time to restructure general practice, given the declining number of graduates entering the specialty. 

She was also clear on the fact that the RACGP would not fully commit to VPR until further funding detail is released. 

“We have an opportunity here to reposition [primary] healthcare,” she said. 

“Now we do need that to be backed by resources – if it’s under-resourced and it becomes a way of constraining healthcare costs, that’s not going to work.” 

Resourcing and implementation discussions, which is when the all-important funding questions will start to be answered, are set to take place in the coming months. 

Dr Price was keen to dispel any notion that VPR is capitation-lite. 

“What I’d like to say is that first of all, it appears Medicare is already constrained,” she said. 

“And [VPR] is not a capitated model, because we still have choices and multi-source funding.”

She also alluded to the possibility that VPR will help create a more integrated healthcare system. 

“In hospital, they do multidisciplinary medical teams and discuss case-based management,” Dr Price said. 

“They can do that in hospital because the time is funded, whereas we can’t do that in general practice. 

“There are additional things we can do for a complex patient [if we had the financial support], like a team-based discussion without the patient even being there, that would really enable high quality care.”

Something to say?

Leave a Reply

4 Comments on "Voluntary patient registration: good or bad?"

Please log in in to leave a comment

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
6 months 24 days ago
A big yawn from NZ. Capitation does bring a lot of cash into the practice, but it also costs a 1.5 FTE in staff for a 3-4-doctor outfit. It certainly feeds an army of pen-pushers, and the worst part about it is the never-ending demands – smokers this, vaccination that – someone in Wellington makes up that stuff to justify their job, and the nurses are run off their feet calling people and asking them to do something they don’t want to do. Voluntary registration is much better – in NZ you are unlikely to be seen unless you are… Read more »
David Rivett
David Rivett
6 months 24 days ago

An election is looming. What do I want to see from GP representatives .
Simply a fiery United Media Campaign highlighting the fact that General Practice is being destroyed by cut back after cutback.
The majority of GPS would be delighted to chip in to fund such now.
Leave it much later than the next 2 months and parties will have their policies locked in.

Steve Hambleton
Steve Hambleton
6 months 24 days ago
“he felt VPR was not the right model”, “ASGP would rather see fee-for-service properly funded”. Read the Primary Health Care Reform Steering Group recommendations available here https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/primary-health-care-reform. There is no suggestion that fee for service should not be properly funded. There is a suggestion that Australia should strengthen the link between Primary Care and Tertiary Care, (One Health System), strengthen the link between GP and patient (MyGP) and invest additional funds in general practice through this mechanism. See page 4 of the above report. “Primary health care reform has been a focus for many Commonwealth Commissions and advisory groups over… Read more »
Chris Irwin
Chris Irwin
6 months 24 days ago
Thanks for the reply Steve, Funding is a zero sum game. Any funding through capitation ‘vpr’ will mean comparatively less funding increase through fee for service. The government is stating they want 40% of general practice funding through capitation. They have also shown every single failed iteration of capitation to be a veiled funding cut in real terms. I’m sure you remember the decade of medicare funding freeze for general practice while the AMA and RACGP sat back? Do you think it is more or less likely that further freezes in real terms (through inadequate indexation) will occur in the… Read more »