Dud public on hospitals in election at your peril: Owler

4 minute read

If Turnbull ignores hospital funding in the upcoming election he's underestimating the public says Brian Owler


One of the time-bombs that Malcolm Turnbull inherited when he took over as prime minister was the health component of the Coalition’s 2014 budget

The co-payment and Medicare freeze sagas dogged former PM Tony Abbott all the way until his demise in September last year. But the 2014 budget drama continues. In the months before the federal election, the government must come up with a solution to what is effectively a public hospital funding crisis.

The government faces a battle on two fronts. One, the states and territories will be demanding funding. Two, the Australian people, the voters, love their public hospitals. They depend on them.

More importantly, this is not a contrived scenario for political purposes. It is a real crisis with a real human dimension.

Australia’s public hospitals, doctors, other health workers, and patients are under increasing pressure as a result of reduced capacity – and things will only get worse without a massive injection of long-term funding in the upcoming May budget or as a belated promise in the actual election campaign.

Our public hospitals face a catastrophic funding crisis from 2017 when the full impact of the 2014 decision to strip $57 billion (from 2017-18 to 2024-25) of hospital funding from the states and territories takes effect.

The AMA has highlighted the crisis facing public hospitals and patients for almost two years, but the federal government has done nothing.

State and territory governments are facing an economic disaster unless the federal government urgently restores promised public hospital funding.

Worse, patients face longer waits for vital health care, and some may miss out altogether.

As hospital capacity shrinks, doctors won’t be able to get their patients into hospital or keep them there to receive the critical care they require.

Currently, 32% of people presenting to an emergency department (ED) who are classified as urgent do not get seen within the recommended time of 30 minutes.

As funding cuts hit harder, hospitals will struggle to keep this below 50%, despite their best endeavours.

Doctors will always do the best they can by their patients, but these cuts mean the system as a whole simply won’t be able to meet the demand. Patients will suffer.

For a patient requiring urgent attention for abdominal pain, this could mean they are seen one to two hours after they present to the ED.

Their symptoms could be consistent with indigestion, or it could be a perforated bowel.

The quicker a doctor can see them and make a diagnosis, then the quicker they can receive relief from their pain, and their condition can be prevented from deteriorating, potentially to a very serious situation. 

It is patients like this who will not be seen in a timely manner because of the federal government’s cuts.

Indigenous people will be some of the worst affected by these cuts. They have a life expectancy that is 10 years less than that for non-indigenous people.

If the government is truly committed to closing the gap, then it needs to properly fund public hospitals.

Last week the government brokered a deal to provide $2.9 billion in funding  to June 2020 for all states and territories to cover the shortfall in health.

Any new money for health is good, but this package falls well short of what is needed to put public hospitals on a sound footing to meet growing and more challenging demand for the long term.

The government found a huge bucket of money to fund defence for the next decade. It must now do the same for health, especially for public hospitals.

If it does not do so, health will most definitely be at the forefront of the battle to win votes at the election.

Professor Brian Owler is President of the AMA

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