Cost of PCR tests to be slashed in bid to save taxpayers millions

“We’ll have a look at the rate of that over the course of coming months,” he said.

Former treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s March budget included $546 million for Medicare-funded PCR testing. The previous year, it was $557 million.

Private pathology labs have made huge profits during the pandemic, with the largest provider, Sonic Healthcare, more than doubling its net profit in the 2021 financial year to $1.3 billion.

The industry successfully lobbied for the highest rebate to be extended when it was due to expire last December.

PCR testing has declined since rapid antigen tests have become widely available and accepted by health authorities and employers as proof of COVID-19 status. Only about a third of positive COVID-19 cases are now being detected by a PCR test amid an overall decline in testing rates.

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Butler said the government was extending a program due to expire next week to fund rapid-turnaround PCR testing in aged care facilities, to ensure elderly residents who tested positive could receive antiviral treatment within the recommended timeframe, at a cost of $35 million.

“We are also extending the rapid antigen testing program for vulnerable Australians, which again was due to expire next week,” he said.

The Commonwealth distributes about 2 million RATs a week to aged care facilities, disability services and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations.

Butler said the nation was “now in the steep downward slope out of this third Omicron wave” but that COVID-19 was “still a very substantial threat to the community, especially to those who are at risk of severe illness”.

Since the peak of the Omicron wave in late July, he said, case numbers were down by about 85 per cent and hospitalisations by about 70 per cent.

The number of aged care facilities experiencing outbreaks had fallen by more than three-quarters and the mortality rate by more than half.

“[But] there is still tragic loss of life being felt by about 45 families, on average, every single day because of COVID,” he said. “And there is still very real pressure on our health and our hospital system because of ongoing infections.”

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