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Committee aims to keep health policy an open wound for Govt

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The effect of the proposed $7 co-payment on access to care and the hit to public hospitals from Commonwealth funding cuts will be the focus of a Senate inquiry aimed at ensuring health care remains high on the political agenda.

In its second-last sitting day before an influx of new MPs shifted the balance of power in the Upper House, Labor, Green and independent Senators joined forces to back the formation of a Senate Select Committee on Health to inquire into changes to health policy in the Federal Budget, including the imposition of the co-payment, the disavowal of public hospital funding guarantees to the states, and the abolition of health workforce planning and training agencies.

Among the issues the inquiry will consider is the effect of a $20 billion cut in public hospital funding over the next five years on elective surgery and emergency department waiting times, as well as overall hospital capacity, plus the impact of cuts to preventive health programs, Indigenous health care, and Medicare services.

The Committee is not scheduled to deliver its final report until mid-2016, but has been given scope to issue interim reports “as [it] sees fit” – a provision aimed at ensuring the Budget changes to health remain a running political sore for the Government through to the next election, due to be held in late 2016.

The changes to health funding, particularly the imposition of a $7 co-payment on GP, pathology and radiology services, are shaping as a major point of political vulnerability for the Government.

The co-payment is regularly cited as a major factor contributing to voter disenchantment identified in opinion polls. A survey by Essential Research last month found 61 per cent of those sampled supported attempts by politicians to block the co-payment in Parliament.

Adrian Rollins