No data on how many patients are bulk-billed

The Abbott government stands accused of operating in an ''evidence-free zone'' by introducing a $7 fee for Medicare services in the absence of data about how many people are bulk-billed.

The Department of Human Services, which owns Medicare data, last week refused a freedom-of-information request from the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association for data on the number of people bulk-billed, on the grounds the information does not exist.

The refusal came after health department officials told a Senate estimates hearing last week it had not modelled the impact of the $7 charge on hospital emergency departments, and follows Commission of Audit chairman Tony Shepherd conflating visits to the doctor with Medicare items, which include other services such as pathology, diagnostic imaging and specialist consultations.

In a letter refusing the association's information request, the Department of Human Services said while it could be possible for it to produce such data this would require computer programming, which would constitute ''a substantial and unreasonable diversion of the department's resources''.

Medicare publishes data on the numbers of services that are bulk-billed. Last financial year, Medicare was billed for about 116 million GP visits, about 81 per cent of which were bulk-billed. But the proportion of people who received bulk-billed services is less, because some bulk-billed patients use more services than the average patient.

Health Minister Peter Dutton has said since the budget that 70 per cent of non-concessional patients are bulk-billed. When asked for the source, Mr Dutton's department pointed to internal calculations that showed 70 per cent of Medicare services delivered to non-concessional patients were bulk-billed.

The data did not refer to what proportion of non-concessional patients were bulk-billed.

This story No data on how many patients are bulk-billed first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.