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Labor commits to end the freeze

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Opposition Leader Bill Shorten addressed the AMA Federal Council in March – the first time he had done so – to discuss health policy and hear firsthand about the issues doctors want addressed.

Shadow Health Minister Catherine King accompanied the Labor leader for a 40-minute question and answer session before the full Council.

The Medicare rebate freeze topped the discussion, with Mr Shorten giving a rock-solid commitment to support it being lifted.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that one big test coming up in the May Budget will be of course what happens to indexation,” Mr Shorten said.

“Labor is firmly of this view that if you’re going to fix the problem of the freeze, you need to do it with all categories – not just GP rebates.

“We understand that these payments are not payments to doctors or to specialists. This is lifting the rebate to patients… increasing the rebate which Australians receive.

“If the Government chooses to relinquish the freeze, we’ll be very supportive of that. Full stop.”

He said the Government know the freeze is no longer sustainable, but he expressed concern that the Coalition might only tinker with a slow thaw.

“Do it once, do it right. Don’t be back here arguing about it again in the future,” Mr Shorten said.

“If we were to form government in a year-and-a-half’s time, we won’t start with the view that everything that’s happened before is a waste of time.

“The more we can move health policy beyond changes of governments, the more we can create certainty in funding and certainty in direction.”

Other issues discussed included private health insurance, mental health, hospital funding, Closing the Gap, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, the sugar intake of children, preventative health, 457 visas, the medical workforce and professional development.

“I’m asked about the big picture and the appetite for reform,” Mr Shorten said.

“I’m determined at the next election that if people know nothing else about the brand of the party I lead, they know that one of our four issues will be health care.

“Health is not the most important issue, but there is no public issue in Australian life that is any more important.

“So we have a big appetite to get our health policies right.

“We regard health as mainstream business of Federal Government. You’ve got to be prepared to find priorities in the Federal Budget to fund health…

“We have plenty of appetite for good quality reform.”

 AMA President Dr Michael Gannon welcomed the Opposition Leader, saying the whole council was looking forward to learning more about the ALP’s policy position on health.

“You’ll know that the AMA commended the Labor Party on many elements of its policy taken to the last election, but it’s time to move forward,” Dr Gannon said.

“And you know that I’ve commended you personally.”

Ms King answered a number of questions an also expressed her desire to work more with the AMA on the issues of hospital funding and private health insurance.

Chris Johnson