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AMA has a responsibility to ‘speak up’: Owler

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Former AMA President Professor Brian Owler has lashed the Coalition over its conduct of health policy in the past two years, accusing it of allowing short-term budgetary measures to triumph over long-term policy vision.

In a typically forthright speech in his last address to the AMA National Conference as AMA President, Professor Owler said decisions to extend the Medicare rebate freeze, slash public hospital funding and try to impose a GP co-payment had been driven by a focus on savings without regard for their impact on patients and health system.

“As confirmed by [Health Minister Sussan Ley] herself…the health portfolio is not run by the Minister for Health. It is run by Treasury and Finance,” he said.

Professor Owler said the history of the last two years had shown that the Government had a problem when it came to health policy, “but the problems are not the making of the AMA [or] of an outspoken AMA President”.

“The failures of this Government are of their own making – a failure to consult with genuine intent, a failure to listen.”

The former President detailed how the Government set a combative tone for the relationship early on.

“In my first meeting as AMA President, I met with the Health Minister, Peter Dutton, who delivered an ultimatum: ‘As I see it,’ he said, ‘the AMA can either support the Government’s co-payment plans or you can be on the outside’.”

Professor Owler said it was an easy choice: “I was not going to sell out our members, and I certainly wasn’t going to abandon our patients”.

He told the conference how the Government responded after asking the AMA to develop an alternative to its co-payment policy.

“We dutifully did this. We worked hard, we kept it in confidence, and we delivered it to the Minster,” he said. “In return, the Minister ignored the plan and [described it] as a ‘cash grab by greedy doctors’. So much for working closely with Minister Dutton.”

Professor Owler said the Medicare rebate freeze was affecting the viability of medical practices, was punishing patients and was “not sensible policy. It affects the whole system”.

He said it was pleasing that, as a result of intense AMA lobbying, Labor had committed end the freeze, and said it was not too late for the Government to follow suit.

In his speech, Professor Owler took aim at private health insurers, who he said wanted to introduce US-style managed care.

He said the medical profession needed to be “endlessly vigilant” to the threat.

“We must never let private health insurers undermine our health care system, whether it be by interfering with the doctor-patient relationship or by disturbing equity of access in general practice,” he said. “Australians are…relying on you to defend against the actions of insurers, for whom the interests of shareholders come first, and patients are a distant second.”

Professor Owler acknowledged that some AMA members had been made “anxious” by the Association’s statements on asylum seeker policy.

But he said that with the AMA’s influence also came a “responsibility to speak up when governments overstep the mark – that is what happened with Australia’s approach to asylum seekers”.

The former President also highlighted AMA advocacy on Indigenous health and public health, including on family and domestic violence, road safety, alcohol, climate change, immunisation and physical activity.

Adrian Rollins