House debates

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Matters of Public Importance


3:15 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Health) Share this | Hansard source

It is a very important matter of public importance to talk about what is happening with our health system and what this government is doing to punish patients across the country. The Abbott government's GP tax and the hike in the costs of essential medicines is bad for patients, bad for doctors and bad for the overall health of our nation. Hitting people with a tax when they are sick and then hitting them again for the tests that they need and again for the medicines they need is a massive assault on those least able to afford to pay: the sick, the weak, middle- and low-income families trying to get access to the health care that they need for their children and for their ageing relatives.

What sort of government is it that introduces as its almost sole health policy a policy that is designed to stop people going to the doctor when they are sick? We finally heard from the Treasurer today an admission of what we already knew from Senate estimates: it is a million visits to the doctor a year that this government wants to stop. Which one of those million visits is this government is prepared to say is unnecessary? Is it the person who thinks they have a persistent headache and finally thinks, 'Maybe I'd better go and get this checked out' and finds out it is something much more serious? Is it the mother or father who is worried about the cold that their kids have and suddenly realises that it actually may be something a little bit more serious; maybe his child has asthma? That is a million visits forgone each year.

What sort of government thinks that as its health policy it is good to stop people going to the doctor and stop people filling out their prescriptions? It is policy designed to stop them seeing the very people who are best able to judge what treatment they need to cure them or to prevent whatever problems they have becoming worse and leading them to even graver health—and budget—outcomes in the future.

A recent campaign in Australian Doctor magazine calling on the Abbott government to rethink its GP tax was supported by 2½ thousand doctors and 500 other health professionals. It is an astonishing piece from a profession not generally known for its militancy. But these are not just names on a petition; they are frontline GPs who will be directly impacted by this policy and know exactly how disastrous policy is for their patients and for the health policy of our nation. There is Mary Barson from Bellbrae in Victoria:

A $7 co-payment will make regular visits for some patients unaffordable. I genuinely fear that they will refuse visits, fail to have proper management of their heart failure/diabetes/chronic lung disease/urinary tract infections/etc and will end up in hospital at huge expense and inconvenience.

I am furious at the short sighted nature of these proposed reforms.

Dr Richard Walukl tells the story of the 66-year-old pensioner who first sought assurances that the GP tax had commenced before visiting his surgery to check out his persistent headache. He was rushed to hospital, where he collapsed in emergency and had a haemorrhage. The GP writes:

I am 100% sure that if co-payment was already applicable he would have gone home and died.

That is a GP in our community saying, 'Do not introduce this GP tax.' That is the true cost of this unfair, regressive and downright disastrous attempt to prevent patients seeing a GP.

Already surgeries across the country are reporting that patients are missing appointments because they fear that the tax is already in place and that they cannot afford it. As the Consumer Health Forum of Australia told the Senate inquiry into out-of-pocket costs, some would have to choose between paying for food, paying for heating or paying for their health care. Seven dollars may not seem much to some in this place; but, when you are on a fixed or very limited income and every dollar of your pay packet is accounted for, the GP tax and higher medicine prices will mean often something will have to give in those budgets, and what will give is the visit to the doctor or the follow-up prescription. The consequences of that could be disastrous.

In fact, this entire policy is premised on the hope that people will stop going to see the doctor. That is the only way this minister can actually say that is where the sustainability is in this argument. We know not a single dollar from the GP tax or the hikes to medicine is going back into Medicare or the PBS, so the only way this government's argument about sustainability can stack up is that they want a million fewer visits to the GP and they want to see a reduction in the number of scripts filled. What sort of health policy is that?

The alternative for patients who cannot afford the GP tax is, of course, to head to the already overcrowded emergency departments, further blowing out waiting times. But the Abbott government has two answers to this. First is to rip $50 billion out of the public hospitals, putting at risk the huge work that has been done to improve emergency department waiting times through the national emergency access target and the great commitment from clinicians to actually improving those. Then it also says: 'A really good idea would be if state governments then slap a tax on you when you take your sick kid to emergency as well. That would be a really good idea as well.'

This GP tax and this medicine price hike are bad for patients, bad for doctors and bad for our nation's health system. We are not supporting and will not support the unfair GP tax and we will not support the unfair hike on the cost of essential medicines. Labor will never support this government's deceitful and disastrous bid to destroy Medicare. And we are not alone in this. The Australian public do not want your GP tax and your medicine price hike, Prime Minister. The health professionals do not want it either. What you face in your own party room is your own MPs telling you that people in communities across the country are not accepting this blatant broken promise on health.

This is a Prime Minister who promised no cuts to health but then ripped more than $50 billion out of public hospitals. This is a Prime Minister who promised before the election no new taxes and then turned every GP and chemist in the country into an army of tax collectors, taking money for the government out of the pockets of people trying to access the health care that they need.

The Treasurer says, 'No, it's not a tax,' but he thinks North Sydney has a high rate of bulk billing and that a traffic gridlock means there must be a millionaires' convention in town. Well, Joe, your own budget papers show that, combined, your GP tax and the medicines hike is a $5 billion hit to family budgets over the next four years alone. That is not just a tax, Treasurer, that is a monster tax.

The Prime Minister told the Australian people, 'It has always been my position that if you go to an election saying something, you should keep that commitment.' Members opposite cannot be trusted. Their words mean absolutely nothing when it comes to the health care of this nation. They could not have been clearer: no new taxes and not cuts to health. Then in their very first budget, they ripped more than $50 billion out of hospitals and whacked all Australians with a big new tax on health.

We must protect Medicare. It is always up to Labor to defend Medicare from this mob opposite. Australian families should not be paying for the Prime Minister's broken promises. It is worth going through, in a little bit of detail, precisely what this government wants to do to health care in the budget. The budget imposes a $7 GP tax on every consultation, with $5 of this replacing the fee paid to doctors and $2 going to the doctor. The health minister keeps dismissively saying that it is up to the GP whether they charge that fee or not and that GPs can still bulk bill. What he never goes on to say—and I hope that he does now—is that if they do, the fee paid to GPs drops $5 and then, on top of that, they lose the bulk-billing incentive. The combined effect of this is that any GP who does continue to bulk bill patients will potentially—depending on where they are—lose up to $14 per consultation. In Australian Doctor, Dr Anthony Hodge from Tasmania said:

In Tasmania—the state with one of the highest unemployment levels and most disadvantaged populations—if I don’t charge the co-payment I will lose $14 a consult for 85% of my patients. Who can afford this …

Does the government want to stop us visiting the elderly and infirm?

Clearly, it does. They want to see a million GP visits forgone.

This is not just about budget savings; this is about the Liberal Party's fundamental opposition to Medicare. The Prime Minister and the Treasurer plan to make it harder for Australians to see their doctor, and that will only put more pressure on the health system in the long term. These changes will end up costing more, and putting Australians at risk. It is lazy policy; it is bad health policy to deter people from seeking early care and treatment. It will lead to complications and it will lead to further health problems for people in our community. The price of this policy is bad health outcomes— (Time expired)


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