Let the thaw begin?

4 minute read

Addressing key concerns over health policy must become a priority for the government


The cliffhanger election result, which saw huge swings against the Coalition government, is universally seen as a verdict on health policy.

The RACGP, which rolled out its multi-media campaign You’veBeenTargeted aimed at patients the day after the election was called, said the next government must lift the MBS freeze as its “absolute first priority”.

“Australia has spoken and made it undeniably clear they want the freeze on the Medicare Benefits Schedule for GPs lifted,” RACGP President, Dr Frank Jones said.

He called for long-term support for general practice as the main driver to rein-in hospital costs by avoiding unnecessary admissions and keeping the community well.

AMA president Dr Michael Gannon said the election showed health was at the centre of everyone’s thinking as they cast their votes.

“It is a moral imperative of governments to prioritise the health of its citizens, and I think what we’ve seen in the last few days is that it’s a political imperative as well,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

Alison Verhoevon, chief executive of the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, said the message to all MPs and Senators was that “health policy is something Australians will not tolerate lip service on”.

On election night, the Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull blamed the surprise result on Labor’s “Mediscare” campaign, focusing on the “GP tax by stealth” that would force up costs and “dog-whistle” suggestions the Coalition planned to privatise Medicare.

Last week he took the extra step of admitting the Coalition needed to work harder to regain the public’s trust on health policy.  But Mr Turnbull has stopped well short of promising to scrap the freeze, which was extended in 3 May budget to save the government $925 million.

As the conservatives reflect on their setback at the polls, Victorian Liberal Senator Scott Ryan explained it occurred partly because of Labor’s campaign “but partly because we didn’t follow John Howard’s playbook, and that is: don’t touch Medicare”.

“I think we underestimated the fact that Medicare had become an issue again in people’s mind. An issue that previously might not have been a matter for public debate – like the rebate levels or the payment system – actually resonated a little bit more,” Senator Ryan said.

Meanwhile, Labor Leader Bill Shorten has kept hammering his popular selling points:

“Here’s a four-point plan, Malcolm,” Mr Shorten said.  “Don’t increase the price of prescription medicine. Improve the funding offer to hospitals to match Labor. Don’t cut the bulk billing incentives for X-rays and blood tests, and unfreeze the GP rebate. That will be an act of trust.”

A day before the federal election, Mr Turnbull appeared on Channel Seven’s Sunrise breakfast TV show and was asked about the warnings from doctors’ groups about the extended freeze on Medicare rebates.

Could he guarantee that Australians would not pay more to see a GP as a result of the Coalition’s decision to prolong the four-year freeze by another two years to 2020?

“Absolutely,” Mr Turnbull said, adding bulk-billing was at a record high.

But within hours media had got hold of GPs’ letters advising patients who had been bulk-billed they would have to start paying co-payments of $15-$20 for a standard consult as of 1 July, with the full fee to be paid on the day.

In reply, Mr Turnbull said, effectively, that those doctors were being loose with the truth as they would lose only 60c from the indexation freeze in this low-inflation year.

“If a doctor chooses to charge his or her patients $15 or $10 more or $20 more, that’s not because indexation has not resumed – it’s because they want to charge $15 or $20 more,” he told reporters.  “He or she may attribute that higher charge to whatever they like, but they cannot credibly attribute it to not getting an extra 60¢ this year.”

As was widely reported, this position was starkly at odds with the AMA’s warning that GPs were at breaking point and AMA and RACGP polls indicating the freeze could lead as many as two-thirds to abandon bulk-billing.

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