While the Government prepares to sell Medibank Private Kim Beazley is preparing to ditch Medicare Gold – the health and ageing policy Labor took to the last election. It has become a truism that Medicare Gold was another Latham policy disaster, dreamt up by Julia Gillard to be rightfully consigned to the dustbin of history by Kimbo as a necessary step to policy, party, popular and personal redemption.

That’s rubbish: Medicare Gold was a good policy – as innovative and necessary as Gough Whitlam’s original Medibank – but was victim to inept release and selling by Labor. Medicare Gold aimed to provide the equivalent of the Veterans Gold Health Care Card to all people over 80 for their hospital care, provided if necessary in a private hospital. It would be phased in gradually, to enable adequate staffing, hospital and medical arrangements to provide this care.

It promised to end long waiting lists for hospital care for older Australians without private insurance, and the need for older people to retain expensive private hospital insurance. This would have reduced private hospital insurance premiums, as older people are the major claimants.

Despite cries that older people were going to abuse a “free” service, hospital treatment is still something determined and arranged by doctors, not by people admitting themselves to hospitals and demanding a hip replacement. No-one accuses veterans of abusing their Gold cards; similarly no-one should have accused other Australians the same age of abusing Medicare Gold.

There was some criticism of Medicare Gold by medical groups – it wouldn’t be a decent ALP policy if doctors didn’t – but there were plenty who said it could work if properly resourced and implemented. It was certainly affordable with the current government surpluses, and polls show community support for older people getting the care they need after a lifetime’s work and taxes.

The real problem was that no-one knew what the policy was about in the party or the media. It was released far too late with no leaflets or advertisements to explain and sell it. It should have been out early in 2004 but Latham confessed that Peter Barron had advised him to hold onto it until the election.

Latham should have learned more than crash through or crash from researching for Whitlam: how time was needed to launch and sell an effective health policy. Medicare/Medibank is still with us almost 40 years after it was first announced in 1969. Those who ignore history will repeat its mistakes as Latham did. A new and innovative policy has to be explained and promoted. This did not happen, which is why a good policy is now branded as a failure.

Medicare Gold should be relaunched and resold – not rejected. And relaunch it quickly, before the government pinches it – it’s a vote winner for whoever sells it the best.

Peter Fray

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