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Health care in Australia

The health care system in Australia has two parts: the public health system and the private health system. People can often choose whether to be treated publicly or privately, and many people treated for cancer use a mix of public and private health services. Finding your way through this system can be challenging, particularly when you are dealing with the physical, emotional and financial impacts of cancer.

The Australian Government provides free or subsidised medical and hospital services through Medicare to citizens and permanent residents of Australia. Medicare is also available to other people who meet certain requirements (e.g. some overseas visitors).

Under Medicare, you are entitled to free treatment as a public patient in a public hospital, even if you have private health insurance. However, you can’t choose your doctor and you might have to wait for treatment.

Medicare also provides benefits for out-of-hospital services, such as visits to general practitioners (GPs), specialists and optometrists, but it doesn’t cover dental (with exceptions), ambulance or private home nursing services. Some people are able to get a Medicare benefit for allied health services such as physiotherapy or psychology – talk to your GP for more information.

Public hospitals often provide a wider range of services than private hospitals, including emergency departments, specialist surgical and medical units, and allied health services. They usually provide services to patients both in hospital and through outpatient clinics.

Many people prefer to be treated privately so they can choose their own doctor or health professional, and don’t have to wait as long for treatment. Cancer care delivered in the private system includes:

  • consultations with your oncologist, surgeon or GP
  • cancer treatments (e.g. surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy)
  • tests such as blood tests, x-rays and imaging scans
  • services by allied health professionals.

Doctors, service providers and hospitals in the private sector can set their own fees. People may take out private health insurance to help cover the cost of hospital treatment as a private patient.

You have a right to know whether you will have to pay for treatment and medicines and, if so, what the costs will be. There may be fees you hadn’t considered (e.g. if you have surgery as a private patient, there will be fees for your stay in hospital and for the anaesthetist).

Your doctors and other health care providers must talk to you about likely out-of-pocket costs before treatment starts. This is called informed financial consent.

Many people treated privately are surprised that they have to pay additional costs not covered by Medicare or their health fund. It is important to ask about out-of-pocket costs before treatment. 

Visit for a detailed list of hospital, specialist and pharmaceutical services covered by Medicare and private health insurance.

Private health insurance

Private health insurance is a contract between you and an insurance company (health fund) where you pay the company to help cover your future health care expenses. The amount you pay (the premium) and what is covered depends on your policy. You can choose to take out hospital cover as well as cover for extras such as dental, optical and physiotherapy treatments. There will usually be a waiting period after you take out a policy before you can claim benefits.

As a privately insured patient, you can choose your own doctor, and you can choose to be treated in a private hospital or as a private patient in a public hospital. You may have to pay some out-of-pocket costs. If you need help resolving a complaint with your health fund, the Commonwealth Ombudsman looks after private health insurance complaints and may be able to help.

Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS)

The Australian Government sets fees for the medical services it subsidises through Medicare. The Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) lists how much Medicare will pay for each subsidised service (known as the Schedule fee). Some doctors charge more than the Schedule fee. The difference between the Schedule fee and the doctor’s fee is called the gap fee. If a service is not subsidised by the MBS, you will have to pay the entire fee.

Fees for services in hospital

If you’re treated as a public patient, Medicare pays for your treatment, medicines and care while you are in hospital, and for follow-up care from your treating doctor in an outpatient clinic.

For private patients in a public or private hospital, Medicare pays 75% of the Schedule fee for services provided by your doctor. If your doctor charges more than the Schedule fee, your health fund may pay the gap fee or you may have to pay it as an out-of-pocket cost. You will also be charged for hospital accommodation, operating theatre fees and medicines. Private health insurance may cover some or all of these costs, depending on your policy. You may have to pay an agreed amount of the hospital fee (an excess), depending on the type of hospital cover you have. Fees charged by private hospital emergency departments are not covered by Medicare or private hospital cover.

Before being admitted to hospital as a private patient, ask:

  • your doctor for a written estimate of their fees (and if there will be a gap), who else will care for you (e.g. an anaesthestist or surgical assistant), and how you can find out what their fees will be
  • your private health fund (if you belong to one) what costs they will cover and what you’ll have to pay – some funds only pay benefits for services at certain hospitals
  • the hospital if there are any extra treatment and medicine costs.

Health funds make arrangements with individual doctors about gap payments. Choosing to use the doctors and hospitals that take part in your health insurer’s medical gap scheme can help reduce out-of-pocket costs.

Fees for out-of-hospital services

When making an appointment with a doctor or service provider, ask how much you will have to pay. Some doctors bulk-bill for their services, which is when they bill Medicare directly and accept the Medicare benefit as full payment. This means you don’t pay anything for that appointment. Other doctors charge a consultation fee, which means you pay the account at the time of the consultation and then claim the Medicare benefit. The doctor’s receptionist can often send the claim to Medicare when you pay the bill.

Generally, Medicare pays:

  • 100% of the Schedule fee for GP visits
  • 85% of the Schedule fee for visits to specialists
  • 85% of the Schedule fee for approved imaging scans and blood tests.

You will have to pay any difference between what the doctor or service provider charges and the Medicare benefit. Private health insurance does not cover the cost of these out-of-hospital medical services.

Medicare also subsidises the cost of radiation therapy in private clinics. How much Medicare pays depends on your treatment plan. Ask your provider for information about out-of-pocket costs.

Medicare Safety Net

The Medicare Safety Net applies to out-of-hospital costs. Once your out-of-pocket costs go over a certain amount (called the threshold), Medicare will pay a higher benefit for eligible services until the end of the year. There are different thresholds depending on your circumstances:

Individuals do not need to register for the Medicare Safety Net as Medicare automatically keeps a total of your expenses.

Couples and families need to register for the Medicare Safety Net, even if you are all listed on the same Medicare card. Once you are registered, Medicare combines your medical costs so you are more likely to meet the threshold sooner.

For more information visit Medicare Safety Net or call Medicare on 132 011.

Ways to manage costs

  • Ask your health care provider for a written quote for fees. If you receive a much higher bill, show them the quote and ask why the bill is higher.
  • Ask your GP to refer you to a doctor in the public system.
  • Private patients can consider switching to a doctor who charges less.
  • You have the right to be treated as a public patient in a public hospital even if you have private health insurance. Before you are admitted, the
    hospital will ask whether you would like to be treated as a private or public patient.
  • Some newer treatment options can be very expensive and may not offer more benefits than traditional approaches. Ask if other treatments would
    be as effective but cost less.
  • If your doctor charges more than the Schedule fee, ask if they will consider an exception in your case.
  • If you can’t afford treatment, ask your doctor if the costs are negotiable – some doctors may agree to reduce their fees.
  • Find out if you can pay in instalments or have more time to pay your bill. Check if you will be charged interest.

Many drugs – especially chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy drugs – are expensive. The Australian Government’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) subsidises the cost of many prescription medicines for people with a current Medicare card.

Concession cards and allowances

Some PBS medicines are cheaper for people with a Pensioner Concession Card, Commonwealth Seniors Health Card, Health Care Card or Department of Veterans’ Affairs Health Card. You will need to show your card to the pharmacist when you get your prescription filled.

People who receive some Centrelink payments may be eligible for a Pharmaceutical Allowance, which can help to cover the costs of prescription medicines. For information and to check if you qualify, visit Services Australia.

PBS Safety Net

The PBS Safety Net further reduces the cost of PBS medicines once you or your family have spent a certain amount on them each year. This amount is known as the Safety Net threshold. When you reach the threshold, your pharmacist can give you a PBS Safety Net card, and your prescription medicines for the rest of the year will be discounted (or free if you have an eligible concession card). For more information, visit The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme or call the PBS Information Line on 1800 020 613.

Generic medicines

Your pharmacist may ask if you would like a generic brand of your prescribed medicine. Generic medicines contain the same active ingredients as more expensive brands. The medicine may look different, but it still meets the high standards of quality, safety and effectiveness set by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which regulates medicines sold in Australia. It is your choice whether to buy the generic or original brand.

Non-PBS prescriptions

Doctors may prescribe a medicine that is not on the PBS. This is known as a private prescription and you will need to pay the full price. It may cost more than PBS medicines and it will not count towards the PBS Safety Net. Private health insurance may cover some or all of the cost of a private prescription. Check with your insurer.

Paying for medicines

  • Public patients in hospital do not pay for most medicines, including intravenous chemotherapy drugs, as the cost is covered by the PBS. Talk to your treatment team about whether you have to contribute to the cost of oral chemotherapy drugs.
  • If you choose to be treated as a private patient, you may have to contribute to the cost of chemotherapy drugs. Check with your doctor and health
    fund before starting treatment.
  • Some doctors only prescribe PBS medicines to make treatment affordable. Ask your doctor for every option – including private prescriptions – so you can make an informed decision about your treatment.
  • You usually have to pay for medicines you take at home. Keep a record of your PBS medicines on a Prescription Record Form, available for download or from your pharmacist, so you know when you’ve reached the Safety Net threshold.

Featured resource

Cancer Care and Your Rights

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed June 2019 by the following expert content reviewers: Toni Ashmore, Cancer and Ambulatory Services, Canberra Health Services, ACT; Baker McKenzie, Pro Bono Legal Adviser, NSW; Marion Bamblett, Acting Nurse Unit Manager, Cancer Centre, South Metropolitan Health Service, Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA; David Briggs, Consumer; Naomi Catchpole, Social Worker, Metro South Health, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD; Tarishi Desai, Legal Research Officer, McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, VIC; Kathryn Dwan, Manager, Policy and Research, Health Care Consumers Association, ACT; Hayley Jones, Manager, Treatment and Supportive Care, McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, VIC; Victoria Lear, Cancer Care Coordinator, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Deb Roffe, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Michelle Smerdon, National Pro Bono Manager, Cancer Council NSW.

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