Health: political theatre aside, health cuts a bitter pill to swallow
With the bulk of the health budget already in the public domain, last night’s budget speech from Treasurer Joe Hockey was less about new announcements and more about selling the already unpopular measures to the Australian public. Attempting to convince consumers to cough up more for their healthcare is not an easy task, and in spinning the new payments as “opportunity, not austerity”, Hockey brought political performance art to a new level.
Indeed, with his love of a cliched image (“we all need to share the heavy lifting”), the smoke-and-mirrors acts (pay more for GPs but get a cure for cancer!) and a show-stopper of a stunt (the world’s biggest medical research fund!), the Treasurer seemed at times only one bearded transvestite away from a winning Eurovision entry.
The much-debated GP co-payment, along with an additional $5 for non-concessional Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme prescriptions, were predictably the focus of much media and stakeholder attention. The net impact of these additional co-payments will be to increase the cost burden on people who are poor, sick and vulnerable, creating additional access barriers to cost-effective preventive care and potentially increasing downstream healthcare costs. The small reduction in the Medicare safety net thresholds, to start in 2016, is woefully inadequate to support the increased numbers of people who will have difficulty meeting their healthcare expenses.
So unpopular are these measures that they have united in opposition consumers, academics, health economists, peak health bodies and (incredibly) both the conservative (Australian Medical Association) and the left-wing (Doctors’ Reform Society) arms of the medical profession. In fact, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum, it appears that doctors (not unreasonably) object to becoming de facto tax collectors for the government — particularly not for a government that has the chutzpah to trumpet its commitment to “lower, simpler, fairer taxes“ and administrative simplicity, while simultaneously asking GPs to collect $3.5 billion of additional revenue on its behalf, in $5 increments.
Linking the co-payments to the creation of a new medical research fund makes no economic or policy sense. While clearly there are some benefits from increased medical research activity, all the evidence suggests that the biggest return on our investment in health is in prevention, public health and primary care, precisely those areas that have been most savagely cut in this budget. Perhaps less significantly, given the number of other “non-core” promises the government has abandoned, the funnelling of co-payment dollars to medical research also undermines Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s pre-election commitment to direct money from “the back office to frontline services”.
However, politically this move is masterful. It creates an association in the community between co-payments and medical research (we’re not just paying a GP tax, we’re funding a cure for dementia!), thus reducing the inevitable backlash from hitting up the sick and the poor. It also puts more pressure on the opposition, Greens and crossbenchers to pass the relevant legislation, as by opposing it the government can argue they will be obstructing the progress of medical research.
Page 1 of 2 | Next page