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Support for research at expense of health care draws ire

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A group of business leaders and research organisations have been criticised for appearing to throw unequivocal support behind the Federal Government’s controversial plans to boost medical research funding through cuts to primary health care and medical training.

As the Government continues to flounder in its attempts to secure Senate support for key Budget measures including a $7 co-payment for GP, pathology and diagnostic imaging services, the Medical Research Future Fund Action Group has been formed to publicly back plans to funnel $3.5 billion of savings from a $5 cut to Medicare rebates and other health budget measures into medical research.

The Group emerged after Treasurer Joe Hockey complained that the business community was not doing enough to publicly back the Government’s Budget strategy.

In a statement issued on 31 August, the Group declared that “the increase in medical research expenditure that will flow from the MRFF will underpin Australia’s future as a world leader in the health industry”.

The Group is chaired by Goldman Sachs Vice Chairman Alastair Lucas – who is also Burnet Institute Chairman – and includes UBS Australia chief executive Matthew Grounds, who also chairs the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, Research Australia Chair Professor Christine Bennett, the Australian Society for Medical Research and the Group of Eight Universities.

Mr Lucas told Channel Nine, “I think it’s really important for business leaders to come out and speak out about the economic benefits [of the Fund], because you can argue they are just as important as the health benefits”.

But AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler said he was “surprised” by the tone of the Group’s endorsement of the Fund.

“While there is no doubt that the concept of such a fund is generally supported within the health and research community, the people I have spoken with are very concerned at the decision to establish the MRFF through large cuts to frontline health services and medical training,” A/Professor Owler said.

‘These cuts are wide ranging [and] will place greater pressure on the health system and make it more difficult for the community to access health care, resulting in a significant social and economic cost to the community through poorer health outcomes.”

The AMA President said he found it “difficult to believe” that members of the Group would support the idea that funding for medical research should come “at the expense of essential programs and services that are already keeping the community healthy”.

So far, the Group’s public support for the MRFF appears to have made little difference to the political deadlock surrounding the Government’s proposed co-payment.

In a departure from the defiant tone of recent comments on Budget negotiations, Health Minister Peter Dutton admitted last week that the Fund, originally intended to reach $20 billion, might end up being a fraction of this size if the co-payment is rejected by the Senate.

“The medical research future fund without the co-payment will be much smaller, no doubt about that,” Mr Dutton said in an interview on Channel Nine. “The medical research future fund will go ahead, regardless of what happens in the Senate, but it will be much smaller. If the co-payment falls over, then that is going to be a big blow to the medical research future fund.”

Under Government plans, the co-payment was the biggest source of funding for the research Fund, which would also be supplemented by savings from three other areas including medical training.

The MRFF Action Group has revealed that Mr Lucas was diagnosed with brain cancer little more than a week after helping launch the organisation. He will step back from day-to-day involvement while he gets treatment, but will continue to serve as Chair. The AMA wishes him a speedy recovery.

Adrian Rollins

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