Health authorities urge government to extend free RAT testing scheme to vulnerable Australians

Doctors and pharmacists are urging the Federal Government not to end a program providing free rapid antigen tests to vulnerable groups as Australians are warned to prepare for rising COVID cases over the winter.

Federal Health Minister Mark Butler confirmed on Tuesday that the scheme, which was introduced by the Morrison government in January, would not be extended beyond July, saying it was “about the right time ” for it to end.

Under this program, concession card holders, including those with retiree concession cards, low-income health care cards and senior citizens cards, have been able to access up to 10 free rapid tests over three months at participating community pharmacies.

The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia said ending the program would deter some people from getting tested.

“If we stop providing this program, vulnerable people who would otherwise have been able to access free rapid antigen tests will no longer be able to do so,” said chairman Dr Fei Sim.

“It really sends the wrong message to the public about the importance of testing.

The Omicron wave in January this year saw a severe shortage of RAT tests, which drove up prices and led to price gouging investigations.(ABC News: Steve Cavenagh)

Dr Sim said community pharmacies had provided more than 58 million RATs to around 5.6 million patients since the program began and it would be premature to end it in a fortnight.

“We are actually about to enter another wave of COVID-19 and what we need to do now is actually encourage more testing rather than less testing,” she said.

Defending the decision, Mr Butler said the RAT supply shortages experienced earlier this year have ended and the price of individual tests has come down significantly since the omicron wave that swept the country in the summer.

“The price has come down significantly,” Mr Butler told Melbourne radio 3AW on Tuesday.

“They were on average $24 or $25 per test if you could get them in January, now they’re down about $8 per test.”

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners also criticized the decision, arguing that while the cost of RATs has fallen since the program was first implemented, for many low-income earners the price is still prohibitive.

“We have to keep in mind that $8 is a huge expense for many people and some of us have jobs that involve being in close contact with many different people on a regular basis throughout the day,” said RACGP President Karen Price.

Shadow health minister Anne Ruston said the government was defying the advice of leading health groups and called on Mr Butler to explain the rationale for the decision.

“Ending this program, at a time when we are seeing a massive rise in the number of COVID cases and cost of living pressures seriously affecting Australians, seems premature,” Senator Ruston said.

“While these measures are not intended to be permanent, Mr. Butler should describe the expert advice that informed his decision to end this program.

Senator Ruston also questioned the government’s recent decision to end a range of telehealth services last month and scrap pandemic leave payments for people unable to work while in isolation.

“The pattern of behavior in the Albanian government’s health response to COVID is worrying,” she said.

“They’ve already cut 70 telehealth services, cut disaster payments for pandemic leave to the most vulnerable workers, and now cut off access to free rapid antigen tests for concession cardholders.

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