"The Malcolm Turnbull government's proposal to privatise the Medicare payment system is a slippery slope to selling off the whole of Medicare," Peter Boyle, the Socialist Alliance candidate for the seat of Sydney in the upcoming federal elections, said on February 24.
"The Socialist Alliance strongly opposes any privatisation of our public health system, as well as any further pathology cuts, co-payments or attacks on our public hospitals."
Media reports indicate the government is well advanced with plans to outsource to big business the payment systems for Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), Veterans' Affairs and Aged Care Services. The plans would hand over processing of $50 billion in healthcare services to private corporations.
"The plans are the continuation of a proposal floated by the Commission of Audit two years ago, before the Tony Abbott government's assault on Medicare flowing from the disastrous 2014 budget. As well as ramping up the neoliberal assault on the public health system, any privatisation of the payments system has serious implications for the privacy of patient information," Boyle said.
"Already, expressions of interest have been made by the big banks, other major companies including Telstra, and even Australia Post, to take over the Medicare payment system, and possibly provide shop-front services as well.
"This could be seen by some in the government as a means to expand the coverage and commercial appeal of Australia Post, as preparation for selling it off to big business down the track."
The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), which covers the 20,000 public servants involved in delivering Medicare payments through the Department of Human Services, has slammed the plan.
CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood said: “Medicare absolutely needs to stay in public hands. Privatising Medicare would mean handing control of a system that we all rely on to a private company that would not be answerable to the Australian public.
“The privacy of every Australian's medical records is at stake here, but so is the integrity of Medicare and other services. We need these services to be run for the benefit of the people who need them, not for profits to line the pockets of private interests.
“Australians are right to be suspicious of privatising Medicare and other government payments, when privatisation always seems to result in increased costs for worse services. This privatisation could also threaten thousands of jobs, particularly in regional Australia.
“Turnbull and the government have not made a public case for this sell-off plan or even debated it properly in parliament. It's privatisation by the back door. It's the beginning of the end of Medicare as we know it, opening the door to the privatisation of other public services as well.”
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) says universal health care is again under threat with the latest attack on Medicare. “The government just can't keep its hands off Medicare,” ANMF assistant federal secretary Annie Butler said.
“First it was the failed attempt at a $7 GP tax, then it was funding cuts to rebates and bulk-billing incentives and now they're having another go — this time looking at potential privatisation of Medicare, PBS and aged care payments.
“Mounting evidence demonstrates that privatisation of public services, especially in health, leads to increased inefficiency. Yet the government inexplicably persists on pursuing this path, describing it as 'innovative', 'agile' and 'responsive'.
“But ANMF members disagree: the best way to be responsive to Australia's health and ageing needs is to ensure fair and equal access to quality health and aged care for all, not to outsource these responsibilities to private, for-profit providers.
“Outsourcing these activities not only threatens the efficiency of these services, but much more concerning, the privacy of Australians, particularly our frail and vulnerable.
“In the lead-up to the budget, the government must rule out changes to Medicare, including privatisation and outsourcing of payments, for the protection of all Australians."
The Australian Council of Trade Unions is launching a campaign against the sell-off and cuts to Medicare, with a targeted broadcast and online advertising blitz, followed by a door knock in 22 marginal seats and community protests around the country.
A poll commissioned by the ACTU shows the majority of Queenslanders and Victorians do not support reducing access to Medicare. The ReachTEL poll shows 69.9% of Queenslanders and 69.7% of Victorians oppose reductions in bulk-billing for services such as pap smears, blood tests and X-rays.
“These are important, sometimes lifesaving, medical tests, that we all need, often regularly, during our lifetime and any attempt to make it harder for Australian people to access them is not only irresponsible, it's also potentially dangerous”, ACTU president Ged Kearney said when releasing the poll.
“Selling the Medicare claims and payments system is the thin edge of the wedge, opening the door to privatisation of our public health system across the board. Vital services like Medicare must operate for the benefit of the people who need them, not to make a profit for private companies."