TONY Abbott’s first budget is the biggest attack on Australia’s universal healthcare system since it was established 30 years ago.
The budget is an attack that will hurt the most vulnerable in the community, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, people living with HIV or a mental illness, the elderly and Australians with complex health needs.
Last week I spent the morning with staff at the AIDS Council of NSW (ACON) and saw the progress that was being made in prevention by providing easy access to HIV screening. ACON’s work is reducing rates of infection, providing access to early treatment, as well as better educating the community about safe sexual practices.
There were a number of good examples of exactly the sort of programs governments should be prioritising: funding programs to ensure we have good health literacy, focussing on prevention; and properly resourcing primary care to keep people healthy and out of hospital.
Sadly, none of these are priorities for the current Federal Government.
At a time when there are still over 1000 new HIV infections each year, the last thing the government should be doing is putting barriers in the way of Australians getting access to GPs.
Not only are GPs the cheaper and more efficient end of the health system, they’re the ones who are best qualified to be educating patients on preventive health, detecting diseases before they develop into more serious conditions, as well as preventing hospitalisations.
Putting a barrier in the way of accessing GPs is also a direct contradiction to the Test Often/Treat Early strategy that is in place in a number of states across Australia. It also complicates what has been achieved in negotiating and eventually implementing the next national HIV strategy. It won’t be possible to implement this strategy without a properly-resourced health system, and if this government’s changes are implemented the system will be rendered incapable of doing so effectively.
What’s most telling about the current government is that it does not seem to appreciate just how much $7 is to a lot of people.
For a lot of people this is not an insignificant amount of money and will be the difference between seeing a doctor or not. This is particularly so after taking into account the additional costs the government is determined to impose on blood tests, and of course the cost for referrals and follow-up visits. This is especially unfeasible for young people and for low income earners on fixed incomes. They are costs that will prove to be prohibitive for people in these circumstances and the consequences will be profound.
I’m worried about what the consequences of people not seeing a doctor would be, particularly for people who are at higher risk of contracting HIV or for those living with HIV who require ongoing care. And that is exactly what the intention of this policy is. To send a “price signal” to deter visits that the government believes are unnecessary. I don’t think there are any doctor visits for HIV tests or prostate examinations that are unnecessary visits.
That’s why the Labor opposition will not be supporting the proposal, nor will we entertain any negotiation on it.
Universal access is the fundamental principle of Australia’s universal health system. Leaving aside the massive assault on preventive health programs and billions of dollars in cuts to hospitals, ending bulk billing really would be the first step down the path of ending Medicare.
What is worse is that the government appears to have little concern or understanding of the effect this policy will have. That’s reflected in the government’s plan to increase the price of medicines to $42.70 for scripts for general patients and to $6.90 for concessional patients. These are changes that will absolutely impact upon health outcomes.
It remains to be seen whether the current proposal will be passed by the Parliament, but one thing that appears certain is that this dangerous proposition will persist as long as Tony Abbott is Prime Minister. The government has said it’s not for turning and not for negotiating on the policy, meaning even if it is rejected by the Parliament this time, it doesn’t mean it won’t be subject to horse trading in a different form in the future.
What is certain is that Labor will never support the measure, especially in the context of the government cutting funding for hospitals, increasing the cost of medicines, changing the Medicare Safety Net, and cutting funding for community organisations the LGBTI community relies on through the Department of Health’s Flexible Funds.
Labor is the party of Medicare and has a strong record in health. The next Labor government will again prioritise health and repair the damage being done by this government.
Catherine King is the Ballarat federal Labor MP and Shadow Minister for Health. Follow her on Twitter via @CatherineKingMP