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Co-payment negotiations reach ‘promising’ stage: Dutton

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Federal Government negotiations to secure Senate support for the introduction of the controversial $7 GP co-payment have reached a “sensitive, promising stage”, according to Health Minister Peter Dutton.

In a sign that the Government believes it is making progress on one of its most heavily criticised Budget measures, Mr Dutton said there was “a lot of good will” among independent Senators to support measures that would improve the sustainability of Medicare.

“Discussions [with the Senators] are at a sensitive, promising stage,” the Minister said. “Our effort at the moment is to get agreement from the Senators to introduce the co-payment, [and] I think there is a lot of good will from the Senators to get a good deal done to make Medicare sustainable.”

The AMA has been at the forefront of community criticism of the measure amid warning the co-payment will deter many patients, particularly the most vulnerable, from seeking timely care, exacerbating health problems and ultimately adding to the nation’s health bill.

The Government has also encountered steadfast opposition to the proposal in the Senate, where Labor, the Australian Greens and the Palmer United Party have vowed to block the measure, and PUP Senator Glenn Lazarus met with AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler last week to discuss the co-payment, among other issues.

But the PUP’s backflip late last month on its long-standing opposition to the Government’s Direct Action plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions has stoked speculation the Government may be able to muster sufficient Senate support to usher in the co-payment plan, under which patients would pay $7 for GP, pathology and diagnostic imaging services, and there would be a $5 cut to the Medicare rebate.

The Government has attempted to soften opposition to the co-payment by linking its introduction to the establishment of a $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund.

In its Budget, the Government announced funds raised by the co-payment and associated Medicare rebate cut would be directed toward the Fund, and has sought to mobilise support for the arrangement from the research and business communities.

But A/Professor Owler said the Government should abandon such tricky ploys, and instead make a real commitment to medical research.

“If the Government was truly sincere in its commitment to medical research, it would provide a fairer, untainted way to finance the Fund,” the AMA President said. “It is appalling that a Fund designed to cure diseases and save lives in the future must rely on the chronically ill, the elderly, the poor, and Indigenous Australians paying more for their vital health services today.”

A/Professor Owler called on health and medical researchers to reject the Government’s attempts to turn them into lobbyists for the MRFF while the Fund remains linked to the Budget cuts to important health services.

“The medical research community should instead lobby the Government to de-link the Fund from the co-payments and Medicare rebate cuts,” he said. “The Government must find another way to fund the MRFF, and we encourage Australia’s medical researchers to reject a funding mechanism that hurts the most vulnerable Australians.”

But the Government is pushing ahead with the MRFF as part of its much vaunted innovation agenda.

Late last month, Mr Dutton appointed former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Chair Graeme Samuel to head a four-member review of the nation’s independent medical research institutes to examine ways to improve their viability and competitiveness, and enhance collaboration among research organisations and business.

The review panel, which is due to report by the end of January 2015, includes merchant banker Alastair Lucas, who has convened the Medical Research Future Fund Action Group to champion the MRFF.

The Government has also called for comment on a discussion paper looking at ways to improve the commercialisation of Australian research.

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said Australia produced world-class research but collaboration with business was weak.

“We must lift our game when it comes to collaboration between business and research,” the Minister said.

The research paper, which can be viewed at www.education.gov.au/current-reviews-and-consultations, is open for comment until 28 November.

Adrian Rollins