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Parliament only way for Govt’s controversial co-payment

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The Federal Government will not try to introduce its controversial $7 Medicare co-payment through regulation, allaying fears it would seek to bypass Parliament after encountering entrenched opposition to the measure in the Senate.

Health Minister Peter Dutton has indicated the Government will not try to introduce the co-payment by the back door after receiving legal advice it cannot be implemented without legislation, news agency AAP has reported.

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler was among those who had raised fears the Government might seek to introduce the co-payment by regulation after using a similar instrument to reinstate indexation of the fuel excise.

A/Professor Owler warned the Government that taking such move would be to show contempt for the electorate.

While such a course of action no longer seems a possibility, there remain concerns the Government might seek to force doctors to collect a co-payment from their patients by cutting the Medicare rebate.

But The Australian Financial Review reported such an attempt was unlikely because it would fall foul of Parliamentary rules that would allow the Senate to veto it within 15 days of implementation.

It now seems that any hope for the Government to introduce the co-payment, which is a central plank of its Budget, will be to negotiate for the support of key minor party and cross-bench Senators.

While it has been several weeks since Mr Dutton or any other senior member of the Government has lobbied balance-of-power Senators for support of the co-payment, the Health Minister indicated he planned to meet with former Palmer United Party Senator Jacqui Lambie within the next 24 hours to seek her support.

But the size of the task confronting the Government has been underlined by an embarrassing rebuff it suffered in the Senate earlier today after failing to secure Parliamentary approval for legislation to abolish the nation’s leading preventive health agency.

In a result that has delivered a pyrrhic victory for public health advocates dismayed by the Government’s Budget announcement that the Australian National Preventive Health Agency (ANPHA) would be axed, Opposition, Greens, minor party and independent Senators combined to knock back the Government’s Australian National Preventive Health Agency (Abolition) Bill.

The vote has little practical effect because the organisation has already been abolished and its functions absorbed within the Health Department.

But the vote has confirmed that the Government faces an uphill battle to get other unpopular measures – particularly the $7 co-payment and university fee deregulation – through the Senate.

Axing ANPHA and integrating its functions within the Health Department is expected to save $6.4 million in the next five years.

But the decision has cast doubts on the depth of the Government’s commitment to preventive health measures.

ANPHA was set up to drive national preventive health policy and programs, particularly in the area of alcohol and tobacco consumption and obesity, which together account for around 40 per cent of potentially preventable hospitalisations for chronic conditions.

In particular, the Agency was tasked with providing evidence-based advice to federal, state and territory Health Ministers, supporting the development of preventive health evidence and data and putting in place national guidelines and standards to guide preventative health activities.

Assistant Health Minster Fiona Nash told the Senate yesterday that “closing the ANPHA will cut red tape, reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and save millions of dollars each year. These savings come from operational expenses—no funding has been cut from program funding”.

“Closing the ANPHA does not reduce the government’s commitment to prevention. We do not need a separate agency to commission research or to undertake activities to address particular prevention issues,” the Minster said. “A separately established and solely Commonwealth-funded agency is not required for public health issues to have a priority.”

But independent Senator Nick Xenophon was among several who spoke in opposition to the Government’s proposed legislation.

“This bill is bad for Australians and bad for our economy, particularly in the long run,” Senator Xenophon said. “Abolishing the Australian National Preventive Health Agency is a false economy of the worst kind. It has the capacity to cause real, long-term damage. This is not the way to deal with the problems the government is trying to solve.”

Adrian Rollins