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Greens put Medicare, asylum seekers at centre of health pitch

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The AMA has urged the major parties to match commitments by the Australian Greens to restore Medicare Benefits Schedule indexation, boost health funding and establish an independent panel to monitor the health of asylum seekers.

In a move to make out-of-pocket medical expenses an election issue, the Greens have promised to reverse the Federal Government’s $664 million decision to delay indexation of MBS rebates until mid-2014 – winning praise from the AMA.

AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton said that, through the commitment, the Greens had shown “health policy leadership”.

In the May Budget, the Government announced it would freeze Medicare rebates until mid-2014 for a saving of $664 million, virtually double the Medicare Extended General safety net threshold to $2000 to save $105 million and phase out the tax offset for medical expenses for a saving of almost $964 million.

The AMA condemned the measures at the time as a massive $1.8 million hit to health that would shift an increasing share of the funding burden onto patients.

In its pitch to voters, the Greens said Australia should not go down the same health policy path as the United States, “where how much money you have decides how well you get looked after”.

“The Greens understand that out-of-pocket costs in health care are rising, and that people are finding it increasingly difficult to afford to see a doctors,” Greens health spokesman Senator Richard Di Natale said. “The Greens are committed to universal health care and believe your health shouldn’t be determined by your bank balance.”

In addition to indexing Medicare rebates, the Greens have promised to reverse funding cuts to public hospitals – though they have not specified how much money this would involve.

Dr Hambleton said the minor party’s Medicare rebate commitment was an important step in preserving the affordability of health care, and should be matched by Labor and the Coalition.

“The MBS freeze and other Budget measures shifted the health cost burden to patients,” he said.

“As a result, families are paying higher out-of-pocket costs for their health care, which will ultimately make it more difficult to access medical services when they need them.

“The Greens’ announcement demonstrates a clear understanding of the negative impacts of the Government’s Budget health decisions, and displays great empathy with the health needs of Australian families,” Dr Hambleton said.

The AMA also praised a promise by the Greens to establish an independent medical panel to monitor the health of asylum seekers held in detention.

Picking up on a long-standing call by the AMA for independent medical oversight of the health of immigration centre detainees, the Greens have unveiled a policy for the establishment of an Independent Health Advisory Panel comprising medical and mental health experts.

Under the Greens proposal, which mirrors that of the AMA, the Panel would be invested with authority to inspect offshore immigration detention centres and personnel, and report to Parliament twice a year.

Echoing concerns raised by the AMA for the past two years, the Greens said indefinite detention was “disastrous” for the mental health and well being of asylum seekers, many of whom were already traumatised.

“Long-term detention of vulnerable people will lead to an epidemic of mental health disease resulting in suicides, self-harm, long-term depression and anxiety-related disorders,” Senator Di Natale said.

The Greens announcement followed the release of the AMA’s Federal election issues document in which it called for the appointment of a independent medical panel to oversee asylum seeker health care.

In his speech to the National Press Club on 17 July, the AMA President said that “once we take responsibility for people seeking asylum in Australia, they should have access to an appropriate level of health care, whatever the detention arrangements or location in which they are placed”. 

Dr Hambleton said asylum seekers usually had multiple health problems that required complex treatments, and detention raised the risk of exacerbating already serious and chronic conditions.

He said the Greens’ policy was “very welcome”, but urged that the remit of the proposed Independent Health Advisory Panel be extended to include onshore as well as offshore detention centres.

“The prospect of long-term detention – both onshore and offshore – poses a great risk to the mental health of detainees,” the AMA President said. “We would like to see the Greens extend their policy to include the monitoring of the health care of asylum seekers in onshore detention facilities.

“And we urge the major parties to support this initiative. It is the right thing to do.”

Adrian Rollins