AMA gives cautious support to disability support crackdown

An Abbott government proposal to have disability support pensioners independently reviewed has won the cautious backing of the Australian Medical Association, which says it can be hard for doctors to reject patients' claims they cannot work.

Dr Brian Morton, the AMA's spokesman on general practice, said on Sunday doctors were often in an "invidious position" in having effectively to decide whether someone was fit to work.

"For GPs to be the arbiter of whether someone complies or not can be very difficult, because you often have a relationship with the patient," he said.

"The concept of having perhaps government doctors to make these final decisions is probably something that helps the GP to maintain a good relationship with the patient rather than alienating them or, perhaps even worse doing, something that's not valid."

His comments came after Fairfax Media revealed Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews is considering having thousands of existing disability pensioners examined by independent doctors to decide whether they could get back into work in the short term.

Dr Morton stressed that people should have the right to a second opinion if they were rejected for the disability pension and the independent experts should consult fully with the local doctor.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners took a dimmer view of the proposal, however, with president Dr Liz Marles saying GPs were quite capable of diagnosing people accurately and professionally.

"I would be surprised if having independent reviews would make much difference," she said. "In most circumstances ... people do actually want to have a job and the self-esteem that goes with that."

She added: "There are a lot of people who genuinely have mental health issues ... and they're really going to struggle to get paid employment."

Craig Wallace, president of People with Disability Australia, said the government needed "more carrot and not more stick", in the form of a proper jobs plan to help people with disabilities find work. 

The Abbott government is expected to deliver a tough budget next month, with savings being sought through tightening up eligibility for the disability pension, among other areas.

Mr Andrews however vowed on Sunday that people genuinely unable to work could still rely on a robust safety net. He insisted the flagged changes were not a savings measure but rather a way to keep people working – which benefited them as well as the taxpayer.

"What we want to ensure is people who may be young, for example, who may have just recently gone on to the pension – to check whether or not they need to stay on that pension, or whether … with some support, they could actually be in work," he said.

The plan effectively backdates changes introduced by the former Labor government in 2011, under which disability pensioners assessed by their family doctor need to be independently checked by a government medical expert.

Mr Andrews said it would be “a waste of money” to try and review everybody because most people would be found to be genuinely in need. The change would focus on “younger people, say under the age of 30, 35”, Mr Andrews said.

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