The new attacks on health care

Issue 
Photo: Alex Bainbridge

The Malcolm Turnbull Coalition government has launched a new assault on the public health system. It comes in the wake of the failure of the previous Tony Abbott government to impose a $7 Medicare co-payment and a $5 surcharge on prescription medicines.

The government is now seeking to attack Medicare and the wider health system by stealth, through a series of proposed cutbacks and fee increases.

These latest attacks have already provoked community outrage, with a petition circulating on Change.org, and a national day of rallies planned for February 20, with the theme "These cuts are killing us".

The petition declares: "According to the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia president Michael Harrison, the cuts will force patients to pay at least $30 for a pap smear, urine or blood test. The Australian Diagnostic Imaging Association claims people could pay up to $173 for an MRI scan.

"These cuts are unfair to the average Australian, but will especially hurt women. Free and accessible pathology tests are key to ensuring early detection of cervical cancer, STIs [Sexually Transmissible Infections], and UTIs [Urinary Tract Infections] and pregnancy. Late detection will lead to MORE cost to the taxpayer in the long run. These essential services are the backbone of our world class health-care system.

“We demand the [Coalition] Liberal government scrap this policy and ensure that pap smears and pathology services remain free."

When the cuts were announced in the government's Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) statement, Australian Medical Association (AMA) President Professor Brian Owler said they were another chapter in the Coalition's consistent health policy since being elected — cut health funding and shift costs to patients.

Owler said the axing of the bulk billing incentives for pathology and diagnostic imaging services will increase the healthcare cost burden for Australian families, with the poorest and sickest being hit the hardest.

"These measures are simply resurrecting part of the government's original ill-fated co-payment proposal from the 2014 budget,” he said. “It is yet another co-payment by stealth. The government is continuing to retreat from its core responsibilities in providing access to affordable, quality health services for the Australian people.

"Cutting Medicare patient rebates for important pathology and imaging services is another example of putting the budget bottom line ahead of good health policy. These services are critical to early diagnosis and management of health conditions to allow people to remain productive in their jobs for the good of the economy.

"The AMA strongly opposes these measures, and we will be encouraging the Senate to disallow them."

The cuts to pathology and imaging services are only part of a general assault on the public health system being proposed by the government.

In major reforms to primary healthcare being considered by the government, 7n million Australians with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, asthma and mental illness will be asked to enrol with a single GP practice. The practice would then receive an annual budget to keep them well.

The government is also considering changing the way GPs are paid, with the current fee-for-service model only applying for acute health problems or accidents. Doctors could be paid for performance on reducing hospital admissions or improving blood sugar, blood pressure or cholesterol readings in patients.

The government has also proposed a major review of the Medicare Benefit Schedule, which sets the fee that Medicare pays doctors for consultations, tests and operations. The government hopes to save money by cutting fees for medical services that are cheaper due to technological advances and not pay at all for services it says are no longer best practice.

From January 1 chemists were allowed to offer a $2 discount on the price of subsidised medicines but many common drugs, such as paracetamol and reflux medicines, were removed from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). Many of these over-the-counter medicines are cheaper off the PBS, but the price of Panadol Osteo was expected to double.

The price of some commonly used medicines increased on January 1 for those without a Health Care Card when the government introduced a $3.49 handling fee paid to chemists. Any medicine that costs general consumers less than $36 would rise in price if chemists pass on the new charge.

Consumers Health Forum chief executive Leanne Wells criticised the government's reductions in funding for other health sectors. "Worryingly, the government will extract another $1 billion in cuts over four years from aged care and health workforce funding when so many services are already stretched," she said.

Initiatives such as the clinical training fund, the rural health continuing education program and two aged care education and training programs will be axed. Instead, more than $200 million will be directed to the rural health multidisciplinary training program and to establish grants to private health care providers to support undergraduate medical places.

The government also announced it will rationalise the function of six health agencies, including abolishing the National Health Performance Agency.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) condemned the cuts to aged care in the MYEFO. ANMF federal secretary Lee Thomas said: "Treasurer Scott Morrison delivered a blow to the aged care sector and demonstrated the government does not recognise the growing needs of caring for our ageing population.

“Ripping out $472 million over three years for aged care providers is going to put pressure on nurses and carers to ensure it does not impact on quality of care across the country. Cuts to Medicare payments for pathology also point to a health-care system under attack," Thomas said.

Clearly, the federal Coalition government's war on the public health system is continuing in an adjusted form under Turnbull, just as it was launched under the much-despised former PM Tony Abbott. Consequently, the community mobilisations against Abbott's attacks on Medicare in the 2014 budget will need to be re-launched in 2016.

The coming national day of action against the health cuts on February 20 must be a springboard for the development of a broad campaign to defend Medicare and the public health system in this federal election year.

The Malcolm Turnbull Coalition government has launched a new assault on the public health system. It comes in the wake of the failure of the previous Tony Abbott government to impose a $7 Medicare co-payment and a $5 surcharge on prescription medicines.

The government is now seeking to attack Medicare and the wider health system by stealth, through a series of proposed cutbacks and fee increases.

These latest attacks have already provoked community outrage, with a petition circulating on Change.org, and a national day of rallies planned for February 20, with the theme "These cuts are killing us".

The petition declares: "According to the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia president Michael Harrison, the cuts will force patients to pay at least $30 for a pap smear, urine or blood test. The Australian Diagnostic Imaging Association claims people could pay up to $173 for an MRI scan.

"These cuts are unfair to the average Australian, but will especially hurt women. Free and accessible pathology tests are key to ensuring early detection of cervical cancer, STIs [Sexually Transmissible Infections], and UTIs [Urinary Tract Infections] and pregnancy. Late detection will lead to MORE cost to the taxpayer in the long run. These essential services are the backbone of our world class health-care system.

“We demand the [Coalition] Liberal government scrap this policy and ensure that pap smears and pathology services remain free."

When the cuts were announced in the government's Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) statement, Australian Medical Association (AMA) President Professor Brian Owler said they were another chapter in the Coalition's consistent health policy since being elected — cut health funding and shift costs to patients.

Owler said the axing of the bulk billing incentives for pathology and diagnostic imaging services will increase the healthcare cost burden for Australian families, with the poorest and sickest being hit the hardest.

"These measures are simply resurrecting part of the government's original ill-fated co-payment proposal from the 2014 budget,” he said. “It is yet another co-payment by stealth. The government is continuing to retreat from its core responsibilities in providing access to affordable, quality health services for the Australian people.

"Cutting Medicare patient rebates for important pathology and imaging services is another example of putting the budget bottom line ahead of good health policy. These services are critical to early diagnosis and management of health conditions to allow people to remain productive in their jobs for the good of the economy.

"The AMA strongly opposes these measures, and we will be encouraging the Senate to disallow them."

The cuts to pathology and imaging services are only part of a general assault on the public health system being proposed by the government.

In major reforms to primary healthcare being considered by the government, 7n million Australians with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, asthma and mental illness will be asked to enrol with a single GP practice. The practice would then receive an annual budget to keep them well.

The government is also considering changing the way GPs are paid, with the current fee-for-service model only applying for acute health problems or accidents. Doctors could be paid for performance on reducing hospital admissions or improving blood sugar, blood pressure or cholesterol readings in patients.

The government has also proposed a major review of the Medicare Benefit Schedule, which sets the fee that Medicare pays doctors for consultations, tests and operations. The government hopes to save money by cutting fees for medical services that are cheaper due to technological advances and not pay at all for services it says are no longer best practice.

From January 1 chemists were allowed to offer a $2 discount on the price of subsidised medicines but many common drugs, such as paracetamol and reflux medicines, were removed from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). Many of these over-the-counter medicines are cheaper off the PBS, but the price of Panadol Osteo was expected to double.

The price of some commonly used medicines increased on January 1 for those without a Health Care Card when the government introduced a $3.49 handling fee paid to chemists. Any medicine that costs general consumers less than $36 would rise in price if chemists pass on the new charge.

Consumers Health Forum chief executive Leanne Wells criticised the government's reductions in funding for other health sectors. "Worryingly, the government will extract another $1 billion in cuts over four years from aged care and health workforce funding when so many services are already stretched," she said.

Initiatives such as the clinical training fund, the rural health continuing education program and two aged care education and training programs will be axed. Instead, more than $200 million will be directed to the rural health multidisciplinary training program and to establish grants to private health care providers to support undergraduate medical places.

The government also announced it will rationalise the function of six health agencies, including abolishing the National Health Performance Agency.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) condemned the cuts to aged care in the MYEFO. ANMF federal secretary Lee Thomas said: "Treasurer Scott Morrison delivered a blow to the aged care sector and demonstrated the government does not recognise the growing needs of caring for our ageing population.

“Ripping out $472 million over three years for aged care providers is going to put pressure on nurses and carers to ensure it does not impact on quality of care across the country. Cuts to Medicare payments for pathology also point to a health-care system under attack," Thomas said.

Clearly, the federal Coalition government's war on the public health system is continuing in an adjusted form under Turnbull, just as it was launched under the much-despised former PM Tony Abbott. Consequently, the community mobilisations against Abbott's attacks on Medicare in the 2014 budget will need to be re-launched in 2016.

The coming national day of action against the health cuts on February 20 must be a springboard for the development of a broad campaign to defend Medicare and the public health system in this federal election year.

[Check out where the These Cuts Are Killing Us: End Healthcare Austerity protests are in your city on Facebook.]

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