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Health policy in play as Coalition licks wounds

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AMA President Dr Michael Gannon has intensified the pressure on the Coalition to dump its Medicare rebate freeze policy following an admission from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that health policy concerns swayed many voters away from his party.

“The Prime Minister, the Coalition, have had the scare of their life,” Dr Gannon said. “If they do survive, it’s time for them to listen about how elements of their health policy could be improved and let’s start with number one – unfreezing the rebate.”

As the shockwaves from the extremely tight Federal election result continue to reverberate, 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 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.

“Barnaby [Joyce] and I and my colleagues are as committed to Medicare as any other Member in the Parliament. That’s a fact.

“However, there was some fertile ground in which that grotesque lie could be sown. There is no doubt about that. It was a grotesque lie. Very cynical, very dishonest, but very effective.”

In comments that raise the prospect the Coalition will re-visit its health policies, the Prime Minister flagged that he and his colleagues would need to address perceptions they were not committed to Medicare.

“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.”

Dr Gannon said the AMA had been campaigning hard on convincing the Coalition to join Labor and the Greens in committing to reinstate Medicare rebate indexation: “That was number one in the AMA’s campaign. We repeatedly asked the Coalition to unwind the freeze. Other elements of Coalition policy leant themselves to the scare and I think they’ve paid for it at the polling booth”.

Health has been a highly politically charged area of policy since the Coalition, led at the time by Tony Abbott, twice attempted to introduce a co-payment for GP visits. A backlash led by the AMA forced it to abandon the idea, and instead the Coalition reinstated a freeze of Medicare rebates first initiated by Labor, and has sought to make savings in other areas of health, including big cuts to public hospital funding and the abolition and reduction of bulk billing incentives for pathology and diagnostic imaging services.

During the election, Labor campaigned heavily on health care, and claimed that a proposal to outsource Medicare payments to the private sector was part of a broader but hidden agenda of the Coalition to privatise Medicare.

At the time, Dr Gannon publicly rebutted the claim, arguing that there was “never any suggestion that anyone was even remotely looking at privatising Medicare”, and Mr Turnbull tried to shut the issue down by declaring the Coalition would not look to outsource the Medicare payments system.

Reflecting on the election, Mr Turnbull blamed the issue for much of the plunge in Coalition support at the ballot box.

“This was a shocking lie,” Mr Turnbull said. “But the fact that significant numbers of people believed it or at least believed it enough to change their vote, tells us that we have work to do…That is a very clear lesson.

“We have to do more to reaffirm the faith of the Australian people in our commitment to health and to Medicare. Now, that commitment is there, but plainly there were concerns.”

Dr Gannon said that, whatever the outcome of the election, the AMA stood ready to work with all sides of politics to deliver better health policy.

“The Prime Minister has had the scare of his life and, if he is returned, I think he’ll be looking to hear ways that he can come up with an improved health policy. The Australian people have shown how dearly they hold it,” he told ABC News Radio. “The AMA is prepared to work with the Coalition, with the Labor Party, with the crossbench, to try and come up with health policy that’s good over the next three years. And we’re particularly determined to come up with health policy that will serve this nation for 10, 15 years into the future.”

Adrian Rollins