Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Dr Kerryn Phelps has warned that Australia could face a public health disaster resulting from Tuesday’s savage budget.

Community health organisations also condemned the government’s decision to increase the cost of prescriptions and clamp down on eligibility criteria for the Disability Support Pension (DSP), labelling the initiatives short-sighted and heartless.

This budget seeks to rob those people who are most marginalised, ACON president Adrian Lovney told Sydney Star Observer.

The priorities of this government seem to be making people on low incomes on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) fund a series of outrageous initiatives -¦

The government justified Tuesday night’s federal budget -“ which channels hundreds of millions of dollars away from social welfare initiatives into defence and border protection -“ as an initiative for building a safer Australia.

In recent weeks, dramatic changes to the PBS and the DSP had been widely anticipated to feature in the latest federal budget.

This week those changes were realised with the government announcing that the PBS will be cut by $2 billion over the next year, translating into a 20 percent price hike in the cost of prescription medications.

No one has looked at the savings that have actually been made from the PBS in terms of reduced admissions to hospitals and reduced presentations to Accident and Emergency because there is good management of disease in the community through the PBS, Phelps told the Star yesterday.

Another concern is that if people pay more for their medicines and are therefore forced to make a financial decision about whether they take their medication as prescribed, then I think we could be potentially facing a public health disaster down the line.

Bill Whittaker, president of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) echoed Phelps’s concerns.

These are short-sighted measures to force savings through making PBS medications less accessible, which will eventually lead to a far more expensive blow-out in hospital and other costs down the track, Whittaker told the Star.

We need to remember that the current debates surrounding PBS only focus on the costs of the scheme, not on the many cost benefits.

In Tuesday’s budget, the Howard government also flagged potential savings of $336 million resulting from a clampdown on the DSP.

From the start of July, doctors will have to ascertain that a person is incapable of working more than 15 hours per week in order for them to be eligible for the DSP, instead of 30 hours under present regulations. Those who do not pass the evaluation will be moved from the DSP to the Newstart scheme.

Council of Social Service of NSW (NCOSS) director Alan Kirkland told the Star there are serious concerns that people who are forced to take on the Newstart allowance could find difficulties in meeting New-start’s mutual obligation re-quirements.

The changes to the DSP are going to have an enormous impact. It’s a concern because a lot of people who were on the DSP could fail to fulfil the regular requirements of Newstart. That is, fail because of their disability or their health, Kirkland said.

Besides that, people living with HIV who move to Newstart will already lose $52 per fortnight -“ on top of that they will be paying more for their prescriptions. For people on combination therapy, that can end up being a huge loss of money.

Phelps was critical of the new budget’s Fortress Aus-tralia theme, which proposes to increase the security of the nation through increased defence expenditure.

The war is being funded by the poor and these cuts to health have been done in a heartless manner. These changes should have been done in consultation with the medical profession and with consumers so that the government could have predicted the tragic impact on certain groups in the community, Phelps said.

The AMA president was not alone in her scepticism.

It’s one thing to make the county secure, but it is a pyrrhic victory if everybody who is inside the fortress is sick and out of pocket, Lovney said.

I think the government has succeeded in convincing people that they need to be protected. I guess the question is, who do they need to be protected from? It seems to me that the bigger risk for chronically ill is not a foreign enemy, but the Australian government itself.

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