Family doctors can put up their patient charges by 6.5 per cent from next month without risking official investigation of their fees.
This would increase average patient fees to nearly $28 for a standard consultation of 15 minutes, although this will vary depending on a clinic's level of state subsidies and the patient's age. The 21 district health boards each year in May issue a statement of "reasonable" fee increases for the coming financial year.
Yesterday, based on advice by financial consultants LECG, they set the level at 6.5 per cent from July 1.
But that is only a guide and is based on a GP clinic that derives half its income from patient fees and the rest from state funding and is an average across all ages.
Higher increases would still be considered reasonable if, for instance, they applied to one age band and were offset by the changes in other bands.
The DHBs noted the Government's priority to maintain "free or very-low-cost access for under-6s" and said they expected fee changes to recognise this. Clinics that breach the 6.5 per cent - or the permitted variations of it - are at risk of being sent, by their local DHB, to a fees review committee where they have to justify their increases.
Yesterday's "reasonable increase" is the highest since the first one, of 2.4 per cent, which was for 2005/6. It was followed by 4.5 per cent, 6.1 per cent and 4.7 per cent.
New Zealand Doctor magazine reported GP groups as emphasising that the fees statement was a guide for DHBs, not doctors.
"All this is telling us is the level at which a fees review could be triggered," said Dr Bev O'Keefe, chairwoman of the Independent Practitioners Association Council. "It's not telling us the level at which fees should be set.
"Practices should be spending their time analysing the cost of their own business, not the LECG report."
She said the size of the latest reasonable increase would probably mean fewer general practices would face fees reviews in the coming year.
LECG calculates the figure based on three official indices of business cost rises over the year to March - including wages, electricity and rent - and the size of the Government's funding increase to DHBs to cover inflation, population growth and ageing.