Health policy is at the heart of the current Federal election campaign – and rightly so.
Health policy – the institutions, health professionals and services it affects – has an impact on every Australian, every day throughout their lives, either directly or indirectly.
The key health issues that traditionally influence voters the most are public hospital funding and primary health care, particularly general practice – your family doctor.
This is not to ignore aged care, mental health, private health insurance, prevention, end of life care, palliative care, or chronic disease. These all matter – a lot. But governments usually get held to account at election time about how they fund, or don’t fund, public hospitals and access to quality primary care.
We are yet to hear major policy announcements about public hospitals but the battle over primary care is on in earnest.
For many Australians, Medicare is the Australian health system. Going into this election campaign, the Government was armed with policies that take money out of Medicare, with the one causing the most fuss being the freeze on Medicare patient rebates until 2020.
Put simply, the freeze – which now stretches out for seven long years – means that the Medicare rebate, currently $37.05, will not increase before 2020.
This will have a huge impact on bulk billing, which is bad news for older patients, retirees, working families with several children, the chronically ill and the most vulnerable in the community.
The freeze does not just affect GP visits. It also hits medical specialists, pathology and diagnostic imaging.
So, every time you visit your GP, geriatrician, surgeon, cardiologist, oncologist or other specialist, you will pay more and the costs will increase year on year until 2020.
Every time you need a blood test or an x-ray, it will cost more.
For people with complex or chronic conditions and families with young children, these costs will add up.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has been campaigning tirelessly to convince the Government to change its policy, but so far there is no indication that it will lift the freeze.
The Labor Party has announced that, if elected, it would lift the freeze from 1 January 2017. The AMA and many other health groups have publicly supported this pledge.
If Medicare is to continue to offer universality of access to quality health care, the Medicare rebate freeze must be lifted.
But further than that, the next Government must invest significantly in general practice, which is the entry point to health care for most Australians at all stages of life.
GPs need greater support to offer the full range of services, which includes home visits and visits to residential aged care facilities.
Health policy affects us all. We need properly resourced hospitals, well-supported general practices and a strong medical workforce to keep the community well.
If our hospitals and GPs are looked after, then other vital services – such as aged care, mental health, allied health services, palliative care and medical specialists – will also benefit and be able to better serve patients – affordably.
It is important that we all tell our politicians and governments that health policy matters – a lot.
Read more at www.ama.com.au
Associate Professor Brian Owler was elected Federal President of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) in May 2014. He is a Consultant Neurosurgeon at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Westmead Private, Sydney Adventist Hospital at Wahroonga, and Norwest Private Hospital. A/Prof Owler has a PhD from the University of Sydney and spent 18 months performing research at the Academic Neurosurgery Unit at the University of Cambridge. He is Associate Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Sydney. A/Prof Owler has a particular interest in public health advocacy. He can be seen on billboards and on television as the face and voice of the ‘Don’t Rush’ advertising campaign targeted at reducing speed-related road accidents in NSW.