For many people, a cancer diagnosis is the start of a long and often complicated journey through the health care system. Navigating through this system can be challenging, particularly when you are dealing with the physical and emotional effects of cancer.
This page and subsequent pages, outline what you can reasonably expect of the health care system and your treatment team. It also includes some basic information about insurance and workplace rights, and practical issues such as paying for treatment, finding a specialist and accessing community services.
This information is about working in partnership with your health care providers and taking an active role in your care, if you wish to do so. This doesn’t mean you are making demands of your treatment team – rather, it’s about feeling comfortable asking questions and ensuring your needs are met.
This section provides a general overview of the health care system in Australia. It includes information about:
Medicare is insurance provided by the government that gives citizens and permanent residents of Australia access to medical and hospital services. It is also available to people who meet certain other requirements (e.g. some overseas visitors).
Under Medicare, you are entitled to free inpatient treatment in a public hospital, even if you have private health insurance. However, you can’t choose your own doctor and you might have to wait for treatment. Medicare also provides benefits for outpatient 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.
Free or subsidised dental care is available to people who meet certain eligibility criteria, for example, you may need to hold a particular concession card. Visit your state or territory health department’s website for information.
Private health insurance is a contract between you and an insurance company where you pay the company to cover your medical expenses. The amount you pay (the premium) and what is covered depends on your policy.
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. See public or private treatment.
Visit privatehealth.gov.au for a detailed list of hospital, specialist and pharmaceutical services covered by Medicare and private health insurance.
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 – for example, if you have surgery as a private patient, there will be fees for your stay in hospital and for the anaesthetist.
Your doctors must talk to you about likely out-of-pocket expenses before treatment starts. This is called informed financial consent. For more information order a free copy of Cancer and Your Finances or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Medicare sets fees for medical services. The list of fees is called the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS). Some doctors charge more than the Schedule fee. The difference between the Schedule fee and the doctor’s fee is called the gap fee.
Before being admitted to hospital, you should ask:
If you’re treated as a public patient, Medicare pays for your treatment and care while you are in hospital and for follow-up care from your treating doctor.
For private patients in a public or private hospital, Medicare pays 75% of the Schedule fee for services and procedures that your doctor provides. If your doctor charges more than the Schedule fee, your health fund may pay the gap fee or you may have to pay it yourself. You will also be charged for hospital accommodation and items such as operating theatre fees and medicines. Private health insurance may cover some or all of these costs, depending on your policy. You may also have to pay an excess to your health fund, depending on the type of hospital cover you have.
A lot of cancer care is delivered outside hospital, such as consultations with your oncologist, surgeon or GP, and tests, such as blood tests, x-rays and scans.
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. Other doctors charge a consultation fee, which means you pay the account at the time of the consultation and claim the benefit through Medicare. You can often make this claim when you pay the bill – the doctor’s receptionist can process it through EFTPOS.
Medicare pays 100% of the Schedule fee for GP visits and 85% of the Schedule fee for visits to specialists – you pay the extra 15% of the specialist’s fee. If the doctor charges above the Schedule fee, you will pay a gap fee on top of the 15%.
You have some options if treatment is too expensive:
The Medicare Safety Net subsidises out-of-hospital costs, such as medical appointments and tests, once your expenses exceed a certain amount (called the threshold). There are different thresholds depending on your circumstances. Once you reach the threshold, you may receive a higher Medicare benefit for eligible expenses for the rest of the calendar year.
Individual patients do not need to register for the Medicare Safety Net as Medicare automatically keeps a total of your expenses. You can contact Medicare to register as a family or couple and combine your medical costs so you are more likely to meet the threshold sooner. See more information about the Medicare Safety Net and registering as a family or couple.
Many drugs – especially chemotherapy drugs – are expensive. The Australian Government’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) subsidises the cost of many different prescription medicines for people with a current Medicare card.
Some PBS medicines are cheaper for people with the following cards:
You will need to show your eligible card to the pharmacist when you get your prescription filled.
People who receive certain Centrelink payments may be eligible for a Pharmaceutical Allowance, which can help to cover the costs of prescription medicines.
The PBS Safety Net further reduces the cost of PBS medicines once you or your family have spent a certain amount. When you reach the Safety Net 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.
You can ask your pharmacist to supply you with a generic brand of your prescribed medicine if one is available. Generic medicines contain the same active ingredients as more expensive brands. The medicine may look different, but it meets the high standards of quality, safety and effectiveness set by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which regulates medicines sold in Australia.
Doctors may prescribe a medicine that is not on the PBS. Prescriptions for these medicines are known as private prescriptions. They may cost more than PBS medicines and they do 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.