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Billions start flowing for medical research

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Almost $1.3 billion of funds stripped from the Health portfolio have been funnelled to the Medical Research Future Fund as the Federal Government makes good on its controversial plan to divert billions of dollars from other areas of health to support research.

Late last month the Government, with little fanfare, transferred $1.277 billion to the MRFF’s Special Account, the first instalment of what is expected to be $20 billion injected into the Fund in coming years.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is persisting with the Medicare rebate freeze, reduced public hospital funding and cuts to bulk billing incentives in pathology and diagnostic imaging, with a share of the savings being directed to the MRFF.

The plan, unveiled in the 2014 Budget, was heavily criticised at the time by the AMA, which argued that although increased investment in medical research was welcome, it should not come at the expense of medical services and other areas of health.

But the $1.2 billion transfer is the clearest demonstration yet that the Government has no intention to abandon or scale back its plan, which has the backing of parts of the medical research community.

The Research Australia alliance, which claims to have 160 members and supporters, welcomed the initial investment as a “significant step to secure Australia’s health and medical research future”.

Research Australia Chief Executive Officer Nadia Levin said the transfer of the money to the MRFF Special Account was “words in action”.

“This is Prime Minister Turnbull and Health Minister Ley doing exactly what they said they would do – build our health system and build an innovation nation,” Ms Levin said. “This is not just words. It’s action and it’s money, and it is going to make an enormous difference to the health of Australians and the health of the economy.”

Following months of consultation, the MRFF is developing a document setting out the strategy and principles which will guide its investment in research projects.

Initially, the Fund intends to direct $61 million toward health and medical research project this financial year.

Under the Government’s plan, the Fund will expand rapidly in the next few years to reach $20 billion in the early 2020s, enabling it to invest around $1 billion a year in research.

Adrian Rollins