Tuesday, 2 December 2014
Health Committee; Report
by leave—I move:
That the Senate take note of the report.
I would like to speak briefly. Coalition senators have tabled a dissenting report. We have a number of concerns with this committee generally. We believe that the Select Committee on Health is duplicating much of the work that is done by both the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee and the Senate Community Affairs References Committee. That is important as we look at the strain on committees at the moment. We know that there is some doubt about whether some of the crossbenchers will be able to get resources for things like the committee into wind farms, yet this committee is more or less duplicating the work of two existing committees and we believe is being conducted in a way that the outcomes are completely predetermined and there is a lack of foreseeable actionable outcomes. There is scope and scale, as I said, that duplicates much of the work. There is an agenda that appears unduly partisan, and there does not seem to be any recognition of much of the complexity of this area.
I would also like to briefly highlight—and this is highlighted in the report—that the committee emphasised that they wished to focus on hearings in regional areas. Of the 13 regional hearings proposed by the chair, five have since been cancelled, four that were scheduled to be full days are only half days due to lack of witnesses and one has been postponed. Despite the committee's purported focus on regional areas, there is yet to be a full-day hearing in a town outside of the capital cities.
There seems to be an ignoring of inconvenient evidence, which I saw, for instance, in Tasmania. When I attended there was evidence presented that showed that the former Tasmanian Labor-Greens government had been getting all sorts of additional money for health which it had not been spending—in fact, it was spending less per capita on health even though it got that additional money in recognition of Tasmania's special circumstances. Evidence like that seems to have been ignored.
To finish briefly, we have concerns about how this process is managed. We think it is duplicating the existing work of committees, therefore putting unreasonable strain on the resources of that committee office. I commend the dissenting report to the Senate.
I rise to take note of the very important and timely report from the Senate Select Committee on Health. I know that my colleague and chair of the committee, Senator O'Neill, will speak more fulsomely about the report, but I really just want to go to the recommendations about the proposal of the government to amalgamate the Organ and Tissue Authority and the National Blood Authority. This was a recommendation that was made originally in the Commission of Audit report. When I saw it I thought, 'Goodness me, that shows that they really just do not understand what these two organisations do.' I honestly thought that the government would say 'No' and that the Commission of Audit just do not really understand these two organisations.
The Organ and Tissue Authority was established by the Labor government in recognition of the fact that Australia did not have very good rates of organ donation in our country. There was strong community activism when we were in government to encourage the government to do more, and so we did. We established the authority, which was tasked to do a range of things: to improve community understanding, to improve community buy-in to donating, and, most importantly, to work with our states and territories and our public hospital systems to make sure the processes to deliver effective donation occurred as well as to fund that process. That is the role of the Organ and Tissue Authority. Quite differently, the National Blood Authority was established and has been in place for many, many years. Its task is essentially to manage the contract with Red Cross Australia, to make sure that the blood supply is provided and that the work that the Red Cross does—the marvellous work that the Red Cross does to ensure that the blood supply is of a quality that we expect—is done.
They are two quite separate activities that these two organisations do. Simply because they deal with parts of our bodies is not a reason to say, 'That's easy; we'll just amalgamate them.' We took evidence from both of those authorities. We asked them where the savings were. When you look at the budgets of both of them, they are very lean organisations. They are organisations that do not have excess activities that can be trimmed. Frankly, the only evidence we really received is that the two CEOs would turn into one. In my view, that would diminish the activity of that CEO, whomever it might be if the government gets its way, to be able to make sure that those different tasks are done properly.
The committee has taken evidence not only from the two entities but it also talked to others. When we were in Moruya we talked to a gentleman who was the recipient of a donated kidney and his evidence to us was quite strong that the authority would not gain. In fact, he was concerned that there would be a diminished effort around the amalgamation of those two organisations. We say this in the context of the fact that this year organ donation rates are not tracking where they were 12 months ago. We do not have an answer for why that is happening, but it is of concern. So I say to the government very clearly: this is mistaken; there are no savings in this proposed amalgamation. There are very good policy reasons why we need two separate entities. They do not cost that much. Amalgamating them will potentially impact on our organ and tissue donation rates. Hopefully it would not impact on the contract management with Red Cross, but I do alert the government to the fear that is in the community. We cannot undermine the great work that we have seen done by the authority and the organ and tissue donation authority under their current leaders. Our recommendation is: cease the merger, cease this happening and make sure these organisations get on with their jobs of making sure that their activities are continued.
I will finish my comments now and pass over to the committee's very excellent chair, but, in doing so, I do want to pay tribute to the staff who have provided us with excellent support. It has been a difficult committee to run, so to Mr Palethorpe and Miss Reardon: thank you very much for all your support.
I rise to take note of the first interim report of the Senate Select Committee on Health. Firstly, let me state how truly grateful I am to the health professionals, nurses, ambos, diabetes advocates, doctors, health administrators and the other brave citizens who came before our committee to give evidence about the Abbott government's attempts to destroy Australia's health system. We heard damning evidence about the government's failure to consult the sector prior to breaking its promises and revealing its real plans around a GP tax in the federal budget in May.
Tony Abbott promised before the election that there would be no cuts to health, but we all know what an untruth that was. Indeed, the budget revealed $60 billion in cuts. What this committee has revealed is that the combination of a $7 co-payment on GP visits, on pathology and on diagnostic imaging and on the other associated cuts that go alongside those co-payments equate to much more than a cut. They are better described as machete blows to the entire sector, devised to bring about the death of Medicare. In the preparation that was undertaken by the government for this attack on Medicare through the attack on GP co-payments, the AMA have made it very clear that they were amongst the illustrious groups in this country that were ignored. There was a complete failure of consultation at any stage prior to the budget. The AMA actually put on the record:
The AMA is concerned that the Government’s Budget measures therefore appear to ignore systemic opportunities to address health care spending. They appear to be driven by ideology rather than based on evidence and have not been developed within a vision and framework of systemic reform.
The agencies that we did get to come before our committee were able to declare to us that none of them were consulted before the government set out wholesale to attack the very fabric of access to health care for every Australian.
The list of those who were not consulted: the Australian Medical Association in Tasmania; the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners; the Royal Australasian College of Physicians; the Premier of South Australia, who gave evidence indicating he was not consulted—indeed, health departments right across the entire nation were not consulted, to the best of our knowledge, by this government; the Australasian College of Emergency Medicine, not consulted; the Australia Diagnostic Imaging Association, not consulted; key peak bodies from residential aged care; ambulance services; the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Foundation in South Australia; the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia; and the Health Consumers Alliance of South Australia. They are some of the groups who put on the record at our 15 hearings across the country that they were not consulted. It is hard to believe that a government would make an announcement on the evening of the budget that will affect every single one of those groups and indeed the health of every single Australian, and not make an effort to consult the sector.
The committee found widespread, consistent criticism of the $7 co-payment—a co-payment to be applied to visits to GPs, a co-payment to be applied to any pathology and a co-payment to be applied to any diagnostic imaging. Sadly, the committee found another example of the ideology of this government in applying a disproportionate disadvantage on the health and life opportunities of the most vulnerable sections of the Australian community, especially Indigenous Australians. The committee found across the entire inquiry and through our report a litany of evidence from person after person, explaining the devastating impacts that will arise if this set of policy initiatives from the government, falsely labelled as reforms, go ahead.
What we have in this report is a documentation of damning evidence of a government that believes it is above consultation, that is determined to destroy Medicare, that is determined to damage the health of every Australian, to take people away from affordable and sustainable access to GPs that we know underpins the health of this nation and drive people in ill-health to emergency departments right across this nation—estimated at an additional 500,000 presentations at emergency departments in New South Wales and 290,000 in South Australia. The policies that we are seeing from this government are a disgrace. This report documents for once and all the devastation that will be wrought on the Australian people if its plans to implement a co-payment go ahead.
There are a number of other very significant recommendations in the report and I seek leave to continue my remarks on this at a later opportunity. I understand the time is limited this afternoon.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.