Health a loser in budget

Despite some new health spending on infrastructure and research, the recent budget failed to address the growing public health care crisis.

Dr Lesley Russell, of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy, wrote in the Croakey health blog on May 18 that the budget shows "the bean counters clearly won out over the policy wonks, and to the extent that new policy is made, it seems that this was done by Finance and Treasury, not Health."

The federal government said in its recent budget it will spend $232 million to "close the gap" in Indigenous health.

At the same time, the Rudd government has halved the Medicare rebate for cataract surgery, a cut that will hit poor Indigenous communities worst. Other indigenous health programs face cuts of about $25 million.

The Rudd government announced $153.4 million in cuts to Medicare fees for numerous surgical procedures, including cataract surgery.

According to the Medical Journal of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are three times more likely than non-Indigenous Australians to report vision loss due to cataracts, but are four times less likely to have cataract surgery.

"People in rural and remote areas are served by specialists who fly in or drive in to do the work," ophthalmologist Iain Dunlop told the Age on May 20. "Most of that work is done on rebate-only (payment). After the change it will just not be viable to do these operations."

The alternative is long public waiting lists of up to a year, with people living in remote regions forced to travel to city hospitals.

This is a clear attack on rural Indigenous health, but it will affect pensioners and poorer Australians as well.

Moreover, the government announced further cuts to services such as obstetrics and reproductive technology. It will impose a $100,000 income-cap on rebates for in vitro fertilisation under the "Medicare safety net".

The budget also proposed to cut the private health insurance rebate by imposing a means test on singles who earn more than $74,000 and families earning more than $150,000. Cutting the 30% rebate will mean that private health care is more expensive for some.

The Liberal opposition have said they will oppose the implementation of a means test in the Senate, instead arguing for a tax on cigarettes to raise government revenue. The Liberals main argument is not about more expensive healthcare, however. Their concern is that less people will be paying for private cover.

"In an ideal world every Australian would have private health insurance", opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull said on May 15.

Yet the cut is relatively small and the "saved" money is not going to be put back into funding a high quality and accessible public health system.

The private health sector is already massively subsidised by the government. What is really needed is for Medicare to be extended to provide free universal health care.

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