Simple, fair, affordable?

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Words | Avery Phillips

We’ve all been there. The deadly flu rendering us bed ridden days before an assessment is due or waking up after a big night and realising you wouldn’t be making it to class that morning. Whatever the symptoms or reasons for visiting them, local GP’s have always been there to help a student in crisis. But the future of free-for-all Medicare may be about to change, with a recommendation from the Commission of Audit suggesting that patients could be charged $6 to visit a GP.

Medicare was first introduced by the Hawke government in 1984, and although a relatively recent addition, it quickly became a firmly accepted part of Australian society. Dr Neal Blewett, the Health Minister responsible for implementing Medicare, described it as, “a health insurance system that is simple, fair and affordable.”

However, Terry Barnes, author of the research paper, and former health adviser to Tony Abbott, says, “the Medicare system itself needs to be sustainable… we need to be able to provide the resources necessary to make our health care services work, and particularly our general practices services work. “

Barnes’ concerns are not unwarranted, and nor is it the first time they have been raised. In 1991, the Hawke government introduced a co-payment of $2.50 for GP visits. The change proved so universally unpopular that it was abolished by Paul Keating after only three months.

Currently, most taxpayers pay a Medicare levy of 1.5 per cent of their taxable income each year, barely raising half the cost of a service, which is set to grow by 24 per cent over the next four years. The new proposal could potentially save $750 million, alleviating at least some of the burden on our strained health care system. However, the negative impact this move could have on the nation’s sickest and poorest citizens is a growing concern.

Australian Medical Association (AMA) has criticised the proposal, arguing that such a move would discourage people from visiting a doctor if they are in legitimate need. Steve Hambleton, President of the AMA, further stated that the change would lead to an increase in people using emergency services when their health problems became more serious.

These concerns are shared by Professor John Glover, director of the public health information development unit at the University of Adelaide, who says there is strong evidence to show that the poor are already under-utilising healthcare. This is supported by his modelling of a 2010 Bureau of Statistics survey, which found that families living in the poorest suburbs, were three times more likely to delay medical consultations than those living in the wealthiest areas.

At this stage, it is unclear whether the Abbott government will go ahead with the proposal, and whether or not students and pensioners will be exempt from the fee.

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