Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has immediately been lobbied by the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the Opposition in his new job, in an early indication (if one were needed) that managing his new portfolio is going to be as tough as some of the seven marathons he has run.
Health was one of the key battlegrounds during last year’s federal election when Labor Leader Bill Shorten accused Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of having a secret agenda to privatise Medicare, holding up the possible outsourcing of Medicare payments as proof and wheeling out ex-PM Bob Hawke to star in an ad about it. The government denied the charge but damage was undoubtedly done to the Liberal vote.
Decisions about health budgets and policies have often become political hand grenades, think back to the $7 GP co-payment in Joe Hockey’s 2014 budget or Tony Abbott attempting to wind back Kevin Rudd’s hospital funding agreements with the state and territories in the same budget.
AMA President Dr Michael Gannon welcomed Mr Hunt’s appointment, beginning by buttering him up and listing his past achievements, including being named Best Minister in the World at the 2016 World Government Summit. There is no doubt that Mr Hunt represents a safe pair of hands and it doesn’t hurt that both his mother and his wife are nurses.
Mr Hunt was Minister for the Environment between 2013 and 2016 and Shadow Minister for six years before that. He was appointed Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science in July last year.
A major issue for the Association and its members is the ongoing freeze on Medicare rebates, begun by Labor in 2013 and projected to last until 2020.
The Medicare Benefits Schedule lists all the services the Australian Government will pay rebates for and the rebate is a percentage of the Medicare schedule fee. For example, the rebate is set at $37 for a GP consultation.
Doctors have argued that neither the Schedule fees that doctors who bulk bill agree to charge, nor the rebate, have kept pace with the real costs of providing these services by medical practitioners, squeezing them from both sides.
While doctors who don’t bulk bill can set their own fees the Medicare rebate covers a portion of these, leaving the patient to cover the gap.
For an excellent explanation of the Medicare rebate freeze on The Conversation click here.
Dr Gannon said he was keen to meet Mr Hunt as soon as possible to discuss policy and funding, particularly in the context of the upcoming budget in May.
“The AMA would like to see Mr Hunt get off to a flying start by scrapping the government’s freeze of Medicare patient rebates, which is causing great hardship for patients and doctors,” he said.
Labor has pledged to end the freeze and restore indexation.
Dr Gannon said Mr Hunt also needed to get across the reviews set in motion by former Health Minister Sussan Ley, principally the MBS, but also the review on private health insurance examining whether it is delivering value for money or not.
He also flagged public hospital funding, indigenous health, mental health, and prevention as areas that needed fixing.
Shadow Health Minister Catherine King also demanded the government abandon the Medicare freeze, which she said was “already having an impact on bulk billing rates and will drive up out-of-pocket costs”.
She accused the Turnbull Government of ‘changing their salesperson’ but not their health policy by appointing Mr Hunt and said she would be taking the new minister to task on cuts to pathology and bulk billing and cuts to dental programs for children. She also challenged him to drop the zombie cuts, such as the planned increases to PBS co-payments for general patients, concession patients and those with chronic illnesses.
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