The Australian Medical Association (AMA) continued its tradition of opposing key health reforms when its federal council voted last week to oppose the establishment of Medicare Locals.

Just as in the early 1980s it opposed the introduction of Medicare and in the 1940s argued that the proposed Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) represented a dangerous slide into socialism.

Thanks to these programs, Australians now have access to universal health care and some of the cheapest medicines in the developed world.

Had the governments of the day bowed to pressure from the AMA and scrapped those planned reforms, we may well have ended up with a health system such as  the US’s, which costs more than double that of Australia’s and delivers poorer health outcomes.

Luckily for the Australian community, the health ministers at the time were able to resist pressure from the AMA’s scare campaigns and propaganda machine.

They pushed ahead with the introduction of these health programs, which greatly benefited the Australian community and that are the envy of many other countries today.

Even the AMA eventually agreed that perhaps there were some benefits to publicly subsidised health care. It’s hard to find an AMA spokesperson today who will publicly advocate the abolition of these programs.

Similarly, the objection to Medicare Locals (MLs) is likely to turn out to be short-term paranoia about doctors losing control over the health agenda rather than substantial objections to the detail of the ML initiative.

The fact that there is strong support for MLs among many other health groups — including some representing GPs — demonstrates how isolated the AMA is on this issue.

In fact, the main concerns of other health groups about MLs are precisely the opposite of the AMA’s. They are worried that they will simply entrench the power of the medical profession in the primary care sector and fail in their stated aim to support better integrated and co-ordinated primary care.

For example, the Royal College of Nursing Australia recently wrote to all political leaders describing Medicare Locals as “a reconfiguration and rebranding of the Divisions of General Practice” and stating that it was “unconvinced that divisions would be able … to achieve the organisational cultures and attitudes required … to genuinely and effectively co-ordinate multidisciplinary health care”.

You don’t have to be Machiavelli to see that this tactfully worded letter is code for “don’t let the doctors take over”.

The fact that the AMA is opposing Medicare Locals for not being doctor-focused enough and other health professional groups are concerned that they are too doctor-centric, shows how tricky this area of health policy can be. It also is good evidence that the government has probably made the right judgment about how far to push the reform agenda, at least from a political perspective.

The political juggling act needed now is to progress the needed changes without getting the AMA offside to the point that it undermines the reform process while also not alienating other health professional groups by bowing to AMA pressure to maintain medical control over primary care budgets.

It’s a difficult challenge but Nicola Roxon and her colleagues should take heart from the lessons of the past that it is possible — and indeed sometimes necessary — to deliver major health reform in the face of resistance from the AMA.

In fact, looking at the public support and longevity of Medicare and the PBS, it could be argued that the AMA’s opposition to a proposed health reform is a good predictor of its success.

On this basis, it’s likely that one day the AMA will come around to supporting MLs, just as they did with Medicare and the PBS.

It might just take them a little longer than the rest of the community.

*Jennifer Doggett is a health policy analyst.

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