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Issue #1720      February 24, 2016

Hands off Medicare!

Thousands of people took part in rallies at the weekend demanding no more cuts to Medicare and no privatisation of Medicare. The battle is on to save bulk billing and universal access, fundamental pillars of Medicare. Health and other trade unions, left political parties, the Greens, the ALP and other organisations and individuals took part in the demonstrations.

Various groups and individuals protested over the weekend with the clear message that they want their Medicare left alone. (Photo: Anna Pha)

Despite the growing groundswell against the attacks on Medicare, the Turnbull government continues to push ahead with its plans for the Americanisation of Australia’s health system.

As is well known, the US system is the most expensive in the world on both a per capita basis and as a percentage of GDP. At the same time it has the worst health outcomes of industrialised countries.

Whenever the Health Minister Sussan Ley announces changes to Medicare she starts by saying, “The Australian government remains committed to Medicare.” Nothing could be further from the truth. With every such statement the government plunges another knife into Medicare.

Ley recently announced plans to cut $650 million from funding for pathology tests and diagnostic imaging services by removing existing incentives to bulk bill them.

Judith Kiejda, acting general secretary of the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association (NSWNMA) told the Sydney rally: “The cuts will affect some of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in our community, putting a cost barrier in the way of those who need access to these services the most.”

This will only create more serious long-term health problems and put more strain on our already overstretched public hospitals and health workers, Kiejda said.

Bulk billing is already being eroded as doctors, after years of below CPI increases in Medicare rebates, are now feeling the economic pressures of a four-year freeze on their rebates.

Privatisation of payments system

The government is putting out to tender the management of its payments systems for Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) and Aged Care subsidies. All three areas receive subsidies from the government.

At present Medicare either pays the provider of a health service (eg GP or pathologist) a rebate if they bulk-bill or it refunds a patient who makes a claim on a service they have paid for.

The PBS and aged care also operate on a system of government subsidies and patient/user co-payments, although the mechanisms differ slightly and the role of the government is not as visible. The amount subsidised depends on age or income/assets.

The government tested the water in 2014 to see what interest there was in the private sector. Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of takers. Serco, eftpos providers, Australia Post, Telstra and the four Big Banks were circling like vultures as they could smell the juicy profits on offer.

The government’s aim is to completely digitalise the process. Towards these ends the government has set up a Digital Payments Service Taskforce which it says is exploring “innovations in the current payments system to improve the consumer experience.”

The government argues that because it does not have the capacity to develop the technology it must use the private sector to manage the system! This is utter nonsense.

Privatisation of these payment systems will result in thousands of public servants being sacked, personal data being handled by private corporations, quite possibly offshore, and no real guarantee of privacy.

Once the privatisation of payments is in place, the next step will be to hand over the insurance side of Medicare which covers out-of-hospital medical services to the private health insurance sector – to the likes of BUPA and Medibank Private.

Privatisation will only increase costs as a layer of profits is built into a system which is presently not-for-profit. Patients will fund these profits with further cuts to the health budget.

Instead of privatising the system, the government should be nationalising it and directly funding services. The millions of dollars saved could be used to create jobs, build public hospitals and nursing homes providing quality care.

Next article – Stop TAFE cuts! – Join the campaign

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