By Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY (IDN) — During the months-long Covid lockdowns across Australia in 2021, the reason given was that the country’s public hospitals would be overwhelmed by the virus-infected patients, and they would not be able to cope with the situation. Thus, while the surgery scheduled was postponed, there were long queues of patients waiting for hours seeking admission to hospital emergency units.
The rising cost of living is a crucial issue in the May 21 federal elections, and the out-of-pocket health costs are a vital component. However, politicians are reluctant to acknowledge it, perhaps because making healthcare a critical topic may make them vulnerable to an accusation of not keeping the promises once in power because the health spending could make or break budgets. The Government is in heavy debt due to massive borrowings to spend on social welfare payments to cushion the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.
Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows health costs rose 3.5 per cent over the previous year as the cost of essentials rose by 6.6 per cent, putting the cost-of-living debate at the centre of the election campaign.
The Pharmacy Guild of Australia had been pushing both major parties to commit to cutting prescription costs by up to Australian $20, saying to have any benefit for ordinary Australians, there was a need to halve co-payment. Currently, the maximum a patient pays for a prescription is $42 (USD 30.50).
In an a critical speech recently, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that his Liberal-National Party Coalition government had made the “single most significant change to the cost of and access to medications since the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) was introduced more than 70 years ago”.
He announced a reduction in prescription costs by $ 10, pointing out that it will cost the Government $150 million (USD 109 million) a year to put money “back into the pockets of Australians every year.” Not to be outdone, opposition Labour Party leader Anthony Albanesi announced a few days later that if elected, his Government would increase the subsidy to $12.50 a subscription.
According to the Australian Parliament website, total spending on health in 2019–20 was $81.8 billion (USD 59.3 billion), representing 16.3 per cent of the Australian Government’s total expenditure. Medical services and benefits, comprised primarily of the Government’s Medicare health insurance and private health insurance rebates expenses, account for $33.7 billion (USD 24.4 billion), or 41.2 % of total health funding in 2019–20. Pharmaceutical benefits and services, comprising mainly Australian Government subsidies for PBS medicines, account for $12.7 billion (USD 9.2 billion).
Yet, the Australian medical practitioners are unhappy, and they want the Government to provide higher rebates under Medicare to patients that visit private GPs (General Practitioners). More than one in 10 Australians aged 15 and over (11 per cent) visit a GP at least 12 times a year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ latest patient experience survey for 2020-21. Thirty-five per cent saw a GP between four and 11 times a year, 37.5 per cent two to three times and 16.3 per cent once.
The doctors’ union, Australian Medical Association (AMA), has launched a ‘Modernise Medicare’ campaign and is calling for increased funding to enable GPs to spend longer with patients, including after hours, and provide team-based care with nurses, pharmacists, dieticians, physiotherapists, podiatrists and other allied health workers on site.
AMA president Dr Omar Khorshid told ABC Radio that general practice needed serious reform after years of neglect. “GPs have not received the support they deserve or need from successive governments,” he said.
The medical profession here usually keeps away from political campaigning. Still, frustrated GPs have begun canvassing among their patients with support from the AMA for higher Medicare rebates by encouraging patients to use their votes to demand to fund longer consultations, including after hours.
The AMA gave the nation’s 45,840 GPs election posters last month to hang in their practices and template letters to patients to send to their local MPs over the coming weeks leading up to the election.
“While doctors would never tell their patients how to vote,” Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’ vice-president Dr Bruce Willett said. “They will point out the importance of patients receiving a proper rebate that can allow them to get proper services and fund the sort of health care that they would like”.
Under Australia’s universal health insurance system, Medicare, introduced in 1984, provides Australian residents with free treatment as a public patient in a public hospital or an 85 per cent rebate of a GP’s consultation fee. Most GPs “bulk bill”, which means they bill the Government in bulk for the 85% rebate and don’t ask the patient to pay the other 15 per cent, which means the consultation will be free of charge to a patient. An income tax surcharge funds Medicare. All Australian taxpayers earning over a certain threshold pay a Medicare levy currently 1.5 per cent of their taxable income or 2.5 per cent for high-income earners.
AMA’s head Dr Khorshid acknowledges that Australia has a sound healthcare system compared with many other wealthy countries. Still, he accuses both leading parties of not having, what he calls, a “health vision”.
In an interview with ABC Radio, referring to ambulance ramping and other issues of access to public hospitals during the Covid pandemic, he noted that the problems are with “the patients who are sick in the emergency department, who need to get into the hospital, but can’t get a bed. They can’t get into the hospital”.
“We are starting to deteriorate, particularly around access to the system. And that’s our message here,” Dr Khorshid told ABC. “Australians are telling us they can’t get to their GP. They can’t get in the front door of their hospital, whether it be for surgery or when they’ve got an emergency”.
“Once they get there, the care is not too bad. On a world scale, it’s excellent. But we’ve got to allow people access to a system to keep them healthy,” he added. [IDN-InDepthNews – 05 May 2022]
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