Medicare cuts are already hurting

Nov 22, 2016

Mr CONROY (Shortland) (18:29): Today I am, regrettably, updating the House on the impacts the Turnbull government’s attacks on Medicare and our health system are having in my community. These attacks are fundamentally undermining the universality of our health system that is so important to who we are as Australians.

Government members interjecting—

Mr CONROY: I note that the Liberal members in the chamber right now laughed when I talked about the impact the Medicare and health cuts are having. They should stay, listen and understand the impact that their unrelenting attacks on Medicare and the health system are having on communities like mine.

I do not normally agree with British Conservatives, but Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor once observed—

Ms Henderson: Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I would like the member to withdraw that comment. Reflecting on a member is not within the standing orders. He made a comment that reflects on me and my colleague which was wrong. The laughing was because of the claims that Labor made in relation to Medicare that were lies. Could he please withdraw that?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Hastie ): Would the member for Shortland assist the chamber by withdrawing the remark so we can continue?

Mr CONROY: I will withdraw, but I will make the point that I did not impugn anything other than the government’s attacks on Medicare. It shows the sensitivity of the member for Corangamite that, instead of letting me have 10 minutes to highlight the community impacts, she chose to get up and waste my time and the time of this chamber in a spurious interruption of proceedings.

The key issue for millions of Australians is Medicare. Medicare is the most trusted federal institution in this country. It is something that consistently in opinion polls has the highest trust of the Australian community, and those on the other side do not understand that when they attack it. The Prime Minister and his cohort either do not know the impacts of their changes on ordinary Australians or they just do not care.

In their first budget, the government showed their ideological priorities. One of the harshest cuts was a $30 billion cut to health. The government has cut funding to public hospitals, prolonged the Medicare rebate freeze and made it more expensive for Australians to access pathology and medical imaging services. These acts are appalling. They make life harder financially for Australians and they will impact on the health of our nation as so many Australians will not be able to attend a GP, because they cannot afford to.

Three days after the election, the Prime Minister declared that he would ‘do more to reaffirm the faith of the Australian people in our commitment’—that is, his commitment—’to health and Medicare.’ This is hollow and misleading rhetoric. He has not reversed any of the massive cuts to health and Medicare introduced before the election. Indeed, the Liberals will be pursuing more cuts from 1 January next year.

Twenty-six per cent of my community are over the age of 60, and there are also many young families—both groups that rely on Medicare and are bearing the brunt of the Liberal cuts. I recently received a letter from a pensioner that included a notice from his local medical practice. Referring to the rebate freeze, the notice from the medical centre advises patients, ‘It is now necessary for us, regrettably, to implement an out-of-pocket expense to most of our patients who have previously been bulk-billed only.’ The letter I received states: ‘This is how Mr Turnbull’s Medicare changes are affecting people from our area. Pensioners will be out of pocket $20 each visit. How can they afford that out of their pension? This is wrong.’ I could not agree more.

Because of the government’s determination to abolish universal health care in Australia, vulnerable Australians—pensioners, those on fixed incomes and young families—are now faced with a terrible situation of deciding whether they can afford to see their GP. This is wrong. We are not America, and Australia should not have to be faced with the situation of choosing between eating and seeing a doctor. The Prime Minister and the Minister for Health and Aged Care regularly and arrogantly downplay the impacts of their actions. Well, these letters are proof positive of the real impacts, and the government cannot continue to ignore them.

I have just given a local example of the end of bulk-billing as a result of the government’s actions, and the national figures confirm this worrying trend. Let’s remember these are the government’s own statistics. National bulk-billing is already down half a per cent since the election, and in my home state the figure is similar. A half-per-cent national reduction might not sound like much, but what this means is over 167,000 fewer GP visits that were bulk-billed last quarter. A day before the election, the Prime Minister solemnly promised that no Australian would pay more to visit the doctor as a result of the Liberals’ cuts. That was mendacious. It was clearly wrong, and the letter from my constituent has proven that. The Liberals have lied. They have lied about the impact of their changes to the healthcare system, just like the member for Warringah did before the 2013 election. The Prime Minister has misled the Australian people about the impacts of his nasty and callous agenda.

On another matter, radiology costs, in his first mini budget the Prime Minister cut $650 million from Medicare payments for important tests and scans. He indicated very early on that he was intent on carrying on the member for Warringah’s attacks on Medicare. An elderly constituent of mine contacted me recently in a very distressed state about the costs her sick daughter had incurred in accessing radiology services. This constituent is in her eighties. The fact that she was so upset and distressed about the cost of her daughter’s treatment—let alone the actual medical difficulties her daughter is dealing with—that she felt it necessary to contact her federal member is just dreadful. Senior Australians should not be paying more for basic health services at the same time that this government is providing $50 billion of tax cuts to their corporate friends. The government’s cuts to radiology services are hurting sick Australians. Again, in a prosperous, generous social democracy like ours, this is just plain wrong.

The final issue I bring to the attention of the House is the worrying amount of constituent inquiries that my office is receiving regarding delays in the processing of Medicare claims. Just yesterday, my office received a call from a pensioner whose wife had recently consulted a specialist. They are considerably out of pocket while they wait for their claim to be processed. This constituent was very distressed not only about his wife’s medical condition but also because of the significant up-front cost they had to incur. This issue relates to not only the government’s cuts to the health budget but also their slashing and burning of the public service in the Department of Human Services. The Department of Human Services is struggling to process all kinds of Centrelink and Medicare claims as a direct result of the government’s ideological attack on public servants.

In contrast, Labor is the only party committed to Medicare and public health. If we had been elected in July, we would have unfrozen the Medicare Benefit Schedule from 1 January next year and reversed the Prime Minister’s cuts to pathology and diagnostic imaging. We had committed $100 million to develop and roll out new models of primary care. This approach is so important in taking pressure off the public health system and is in stark contrast to the outcomes we are seeing from the Liberals’ approach, which is resulting in fewer people attending the GP because of these costs. The government are actually incompetent in carrying out these costs. We had testimony from a former secretary of the Department of Health that, if just one in 50 of those who avoided visits to the GP because of the government’s attacks on Medicare ended up presenting in the emergency department, the entire savings would be wiped out. That is because the general practitioner, the GP system, is the cheapest part of our health system, unlike the hospitals, which are obviously much more intensive and much more expensive to run. So let me repeat: if just two per cent of people who avoid going to a GP because they cannot afford it then present to the hospital, these savings are wiped out. So the government’s approach subjects millions of Australians to misery and does not actually save money.

Only this government could be incompetent on both fronts. They have got form on this. Let’s not forget that political party, the Liberal political party, abolished Medibank after they came to power in 1975. All through the seventies and eighties, up until, I think from memory, the 1990 election, their policy was to abolish Medicare. Their commitment to Medicare is skin deep. But I will say this about Prime Minister Howard and to a lesser extent Prime Ministers Abbott and Turnbull: they have got smarter. Instead of just saying they are going to abolish Medicare, they are going to kill it by a thousand cuts, making it more expensive and undermining universality: undermining the principle that is the foundation of Medicare—bulk-billing. Bulk-billing is not a safety net for low-income families to access. The entire Medicare system was built on bulk-billing being accessible to everyone—and you can ask any of the architects of the original Medicare system.

I am proud of Labor’s approach to health. I am proud that we will reinvest in a healthcare system. I am proud that we will call out the lies of the Liberal Party when they attack Medicare and the healthcare system. I am proud that we will stand up and oppose the $30 billion of cuts to the healthcare system, because we know that one of the fundamental foundations of our society is universal access to health care, and the Labor Party will always defend that access.

© 2013 Pat Conroy | Disclaimer