Questions asked and answered during Press Club appearance
In addition to delivering a wide-ranging 30-minute speech at the National Press Club, AMA President Dr Michael Gannon spent another half hour at the podium fielding questions from the Canberra Press Gallery.
The issues raised by the inquiring reporters ranged from doctors’ fees, to refugee health, to codeine prescriptions, to marriage equality – and a whole lot in between.
On the subject of cost-shifting by the States to patients covered by private insurance who are attending public hospitals, Dr Gannon said he had made the point directly to Health Minister Greg Hunt, that flexibility must be maintained.
“We don’t want a situation where insured patients are prohibited from care in public hospitals,” Dr Gannon said.
“They might live in a rural area where there’s no alternative; no fancy, shiny, private hospital there in the region. It might be the case that a doctor with sub-specialist expertise only works in a public hospital. It may be that they need the intensive care unit that only exists in a public hospital. It may simply be the patient’s choice. So, wherever we land, we must end up with flexibility.
“One of the things that’s led to this problem is the fact that the States and the Territories and the Commonwealth have underinvested in public hospitals. So, the public hospitals are looking for new revenue streams, and sometimes they’re a bit too tricky and clever trying to get hold of insured patients when they’re not actually providing any greater level of care.
“But I also think this is an area where the private health insurers need to step up to their part of the responsibility.”
In his speech, Dr Gannon described the push by insurers for doctors to publish their fees and customer referrals as “dangerous territory”.
In response to questioning about that, he said informed financial consent was very important.
“But I don’t trust a website owned by the insurers to produce un-vetted information about the quality of the magazines in the waiting room, whether or not the receptionist was rude, and I have great concerns about people not being able to obviously interpret quality data,” he said.
“It’s a lot more complicated than a cheesy website might appear.”
Drug testing welfare recipients
The AMA President was highly critical, when he was asked about it, of the Government’s plan to drug test welfare recipients.
“If I had to put a nasty star on the Government’s last Budget, it was this mean and non-evidence-based measure. It simply won’t work,” Dr Gannon said.
“This is not an evidence-based measure (and) will not help. We don’t expect people in most industries to have drug testing before they turn up to work.
“It’s simply unfair and it already picks on an impaired and marginalised group. It’s not evidence-based. It’s not fair. And we stand against it.”
On the question of the NDIS eligibility of people with mental health conditions, Dr Gannon said the scheme needed certainty of funding to ensure proper access and eligibility.
“This is going to be a very difficult and vexed issue for Governments now going forward,” he said.
“Talk to the experts. Talk to the GPs, the psychiatrists, the psychologists, the carers who are there providing that care every day. Look at the evidence. Look at what works, and fund it according to what might be expected to work from international evidence, or from talking to home-grown experts here in Australia.”
On marriage equality, the President said he wouldn’t lecture parliamentarians on legislative approaches, but a risk existed that the wider discussion on the issue will have mental health impacts on people directly affected.
“Equally, we live in a democracy where people are entitled to have their say. I faced criticism of our Position Statement from within the membership, and I have made it very clear that we, as an organisation, are a broad enough church that we can accommodate different views on this topic,” he said.
“And I am not uncomfortable with the Australian people being given their say. We believe that this is an area of discrimination and therefore does have health impacts. We would like to see it resolved. We would like to see the Government, the Parliament, getting on in other crucial areas of public policy, but we are silent on the exact details about how we get there.”
On codeine, and the AMA’s agreement with the decision to make it available only by prescription, Dr Gannon said the AMA’s position was not a unilateral statement.
“This is very much the AMA supporting the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the TGA, in their independent science-based analysis of the issues,” he said.
“Now, many people might not know that there’s already 25 countries where codeine requires a prescription. Many people might not know that the science tells us that we all metabolise codeine very differently. So for a significant minority of us, we metabolise it in a way that is extremely potent, every bit as powerful as morphine, and is a common cause of death from opioid overdose.
“Not only have we told the Minister we support the TGA’s decision, we are also telling the State and Territory Health Ministers that we do not want to see exemptions from this. That’s wading into very, very dangerous territory, when the independent regulator looking at scientific evidence is overrun by an industry that has a different view.”
On palliative care and support of doctors who may wish to assist patients to die, he was very clear.
“We have inadequate legislation in most parts of Australia to protect doctors acting ethically and lawfully with inadequate doctrine of double effect legislation,” Dr Gannon said.
“Ninety-nine per cent of end-of-life decisions do not involve requests to die. That is a very, very, very small part of the system.
“And surely the aspiration of all people, whether they favour voluntary euthanasia or not, is to improve palliative care services.
“The AMA Position Statement makes it extremely clear that we understand this is a decision for society: it’s Parliament’s, it’s legislators’. The AMA’s position is that doctors should not participate in these arrangements.”
Refugee health care
Regarding the level of health care provided to asylum seekers in offshore detention, Dr Gannon said the ethical principles were very clear.
People seeking the protection of the Australian Government are entitled to healthcare standards the same as Australian citizens.
“So, that’s a matter of ethics and that’s a matter of law. What we’ve developed over the past 12 months or so is a relationship with the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, so that when we receive discussions on individual healthcare episodes we are able to talk about them,” he said.
“… a difficult and vexed issue where a form of medical care, namely termination of pregnancy – which could relatively easily be provided on Nauru – can’t legally be provided because it’s illegal on the island.
“That means that if that cannot be provided, that those patients must be transferred to the mainland. This is a hotly contested political issue. I am not an immigration expert. But I like to think I’m an expert in medical ethics, and I’ve stated our position very clearly as to the health standards that we would expect.”
Private health insurance
On private health insurance, Dr Gannon said agreement must be reached on basic level of cover, or at least better transparency, so people know what they’re covered for.
“The policies that are nothing more than to dodge the tax penalty, they’re junk,” he said.
“The policies that limit you to care in a public hospital, I need to be convinced why they’re any better than being a public patient in our excellent public hospitals.
“Now I don’t want to spend my entire life arguing with the insurers. They have a right to make a profit. In fact they’ve got a corporate responsibility to deliver a profit. But they cannot deliver that profit on the back of diminished services to private patients. And if they don’t get it and they don’t get it soon, they will drive their industry off the cliff.”
The full transcript of Dr Gannon’s Q&A session at the National Press Club can be found here: