Health policy in play as Coalition licks wounds
AMA President Dr Michael Gannon has intensified his calls on the Government to dump its Medicare rebate freeze policy and reverse other health cuts amid mounting pressure within the Coalition for changes to health policy following the narrow Federal election result.
Seizing on admissions from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that health policy concerns swayed many voters away from his party, Dr Gannon has called on the Coalition to change course and treat health as an investment, rather than a cost.
“The Prime Minister, the Coalition, have had the scare of their life,” Dr Gannon said. “It’s very clear that Australians value their health, and many of them voted on the grounds that they were worried about their health care.”
Last week the Coalition secured the 76 seats needed to form Government in its own right after suffering a national swing of 3.4 per cent against it. The narrow victory (the ABC predicts Labor will hold 68 seats, the Greens and Xenophon Team one each, and three independents) prompted a wave of finger-pointing and recriminations within conservative party ranks, including calls to revisit health cuts made in the 2014 and 2016 budgets.
Rancour over the close election result extended to include speculation that Health Minister Sussan Ley would be dumped amid complaints she had not done enough to counter Labor’s attack lines on the Government over Medicare. Her supporters, though, revealed that she had been muzzled from speaking out during the campaign by Liberal strategists, and Dr Gannon said that, from afar, it seemed “that the Coalition didn’t want to talk about health in the campaign, and that they had silenced Minister Ley”.
Dr Gannon said the big lesson for the Government from the election was that the public valued the health system highly, and in post-election talks with the Prime Minister he had reinforced the need to invest in general practice, increase public hospital funding and reverse cuts to bulk billing incentives for pathology and diagnostic imaging services.
The AMA President said Mr Turnbull understood the AMA’s concerns.
“I think that in an ideal world he would unravel the freeze tomorrow,” he told ABC radio. “What we have seen in the past, going back to the 2014 Budget, was a desire by the Coalition to introduce a co-payment to try and work out ways that those who can afford it can contribute more to the cost of their health care.
“Now, the reason that proposal failed so badly is because it didn’t give the opportunity for individual GPs to make a judgement, knowing their patients well, who can and can’t afford even a modest amount of money.”
Asked if he would re-visit the idea of a patient co-payment, Dr Gannon said he was not seeking “a re-energisation” of the co-payment debate, but instead wanted a serious discussion about the future funding of Medicare.
“My comments…are about being able to have conversations about why those two [co-payment] proposals from two years ago were not good policy, being able to have a conversation about how we fund Medicare, 15, 20 years in advance,” he said on radio station 2GB.
“We’re not far off the balance in Australia, it just needs some tinkering around the edges. And I’m really keen to, in this next Parliament, with a knife-edge result in the Lower House and a very interesting Senate…I’m just hopeful we can have these conversations that make sure that Medicare is there to protect people in 20 years’ time, and have more than that two- or three-year view of it.”
The Government appears receptive to calls to re-visit its health policies.
As the Coalition took stock of the extremely tight Federal election result, Mr Turnbull said it was clear that Labor’s message that the Coalition posed a threat to Medicare had fallen on “some fertile ground”.
“What we have to recognise is that many Australians were troubled by it. They believed it, or at least had anxieties raised with it. It is very clear – it is very, very clear – that [Deputy Prime Minister] Barnaby [Joyce] and I and our colleagues have to work harder to rebuild or strengthen the trust of the Australian people in our side of politics when it comes to health. There is no question about that,” Mr Turnbull said.
“We have to recognise that there is a real issue for us if people voted Labor because they genuinely believed or they feared that we were not committed to Medicare, because that is not the case. So that is why Barnaby and I, as we reflect on this and our colleagues reflect on this, that is something that is an issue we have to address,” Mr Turnbull said.
Dr Gannon told ABC radio the election result had shown just how important health policy was for voters, and it was clear that the Medicare rebate freeze, combined with earlier polices such as the GP co-payment, meant Labor’s scare campaign on Medicare had resonated with voters.
“If we go back to the first co-payment model in 2014, which came out of the much-maligned Budget that year, if we look at Co-payment Mark II which came out later that year, it possibly showed that health policy was being run out of Treasury,” Dr Gannon said. “The Coalition has realised maybe too late…that people do worry about their health, they do vote on it, they do regard it as one of the major issues when they decide how to vote.”