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May Budget could bring on the thaw

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The Federal Government has given its strongest indication to date it will unfreeze the Medicare rebate in the May Budget.

Health Minister Greg Hunt announced on March 19 that he was looking at ways of accommodating doctors’ insistence that the freeze be lifted.

“I am very confident, very confident, that we will reach an outcome which is positive for the medical profession, and positive for the sustainability of Medicare, and most significantly, improves patient outcomes,” he told Sky News.

The Minister said he and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull were determined to work with the AMA to provide long-term support for Medicare and doctors.

He hinted that the freeze could be lifted in the Budget in return for doctors’ cooperation “for ways of making our system more sustainable”.

“More people are accessing doctors, and more people are accessing doctors without having to pay for it, and we’re now working on that long-term plan very cooperatively with the doctors,” he said.

“The way we’re doing that is laying out the approaches which can help strengthen and stabilise Medicare so as we can reinvest funding into the sector, in return for co-operation from the medical profession.”

“…I’m certain that, not just within my portfolio but across the portfolios, we’ll be able to bring down a budget which meets our commitment to strengthening Medicare, and at the same time, achieve the overarching national task of ensuring that we live within our means.

“On the progress that I’ve seen so far, both at the budgetary level, and the progress within the health portfolio, I think we’re able to do both things.”

AMA President Dr Michael Gannon confirmed he had been having frank and open discussions with the Minister, who has no doubt of the importance of the need to lift the freeze.

“The freeze affects not only patients attending GPs, but other specialists as well,” Dr Gannon said.

“And it’s just one of the elements putting more pressure on the value proposition of private health insurance. It’s a measure that is increasing the pressure on our public hospitals. So it has effects across the entire health system.

“The sooner the freeze is unravelled the better. That’s good news for patients. It’s their rebate. It’s their contribution to the cost of seeing a doctor.

“For a lot of doctors, they will bulk bill patients roughly 85 per cent of GP services. And depending on the specialty, between 30 and 50 per cent of visits to private specialists.

“So it’s important for them. It’s their rebate. But it also affects the rest of the health system.

“The other thing about unravelling the freeze is it gives Minister Hunt and it gives the Turnbull Government clean air to try and navigate their way through a health narrative – some new health policy. It gives them clean air to negotiate other elements of their agenda.

“We know that they’re keen to identify savings. But one of the things they’ve worked out is that those savings are not obvious. One of the things that I’ve said to Minister Hunt on many occasions is that we need to start looking at the spending in the health system more as an investment, not just a cost.

“The Coalition was burnt badly at the last election. That’s because they were seen not to value health the same way the Australian population does.

“They need to find extra dollars. They need to work out ways that they can find this increased spending. Now we’re being responsible on this. We know that there is a whole range of things that the Commonwealth Government spends money on.

“We know it’s difficult. We think it’s good government to aim to bring the Budget back to balance. But they learnt to their own cost at the last election that people care about Medicare. If they don’t unravel the freeze and they don’t produce a positive story in health they will get burnt to toast at the next election.”

Labor campaigned hard and successfully in last year’s election on a health platform suggesting the Coalition was abandoning Medicare.

It became known as “Mediscare”. Since just scraping back into office, the Government has been at pains to forcefully repeat their “absolute commitment” to Medicare.

Chris Johnson