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Nation ‘can’t afford’ barriers to care: King

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AMA advocacy was “critical” in convincing Labor to make its $2.4 billion commitment to reinstate Medicare rebate indexation, Shadow Health Minister Catherine King told the AMA National Conference.

Highlighting what she said was a “huge gulf” between the major parties on health policy, Ms King said Labor’s promise to lift formed part of its plan to strengthen primary care, enhance preventive health efforts and reduce health inequality.

The Coalition has seized on figures showing that bulk billing has climbed to record levels to dismiss warnings that the rebate freeze will force many doctors to abandon bulk billing and begin charging patients.

But Ms King said the freeze would eventually result in higher out-of-pocket costs for patients.

“Sooner rather than later we know that the freeze will result in less bulk billing, and more and higher co-payments,” the Labor frontbencher said.

“When one in 20 Australians already skips or delays seeing a GP because of cost, that is not something we can afford to let happen.

“When our population is ageing and chronic disease is growing, we should be investing more in primary care, not less.”

Ms King said similar concerns underpinned Labor’s $971 million plan to scrap increases of between 80 cents and $5 to Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme co-payments and changes to safety net thresholds.

“Cost is a barrier for access to prescription drugs,” she said. “We know that up to one in eight Australians doesn’t fill their scripts because medicines are already unaffordable for them.”

Ms King admitted that the policies, together with other health measures including an extra $15 million for Indigenous health, more than $25 million for cancer treatment and research and $35 million for palliative care, were expensive.

Labor has said it will fund the measures by axing the Coalition’s $50 billion business tax cut.

Ms King said the decision to fund these health policies had not been easy “given the current fiscal circumstances and competing demands. But in the end, budgets come down to choices and values”.

Adrian Rollins