The Australian Medical Association has labelled the Medicare Benefits Schedule freeze the single most damaging policy of the Coalition’s election campaign and demanded it be phased out as soon as possible.
Recently elected AMA president Dr Michael Gannon also said that he didn’t expect the rebate freeze, originally instituted by Labor and then extended by the Coalition to 2019-20, to be taken to the next election.
AMA president Dr Michael Gannon says the freeze makes general practice and other areas of medical practice potentially unviable. Photo: Bohdan Warchomij
“I would be gobsmacked if the government took an ongoing freeze to the next election. They got the scare of their life on health and that was probably the policy which hurt them the most. It makes general practice and a lot of other areas of medical practice potentially unviable,” Dr Gannon said, following a meeting with Health Minister Sussan Ley in Canberra.
He said that that the discussion, while not producing any “hard and fast” commitments, “did focus on the fact that health isn’t the problem with the budget” and not where budget repair should be sought.
“The sooner the freeze is unravelled, the better,” Dr Gannon said, declaring that a timeline for that to happen should be the first order of business, closely followed by a long-term funding plan for public hospitals.
Since the Coalition’s underwhelming election result, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that recent government policies had resulted in “fertile ground” for Labor’s Medicare privatisation scare campaign and that he understood Australians wanted the health system protected.
Dr Gannon, elected to head the peak doctors’ group on a platform of improved relations with government following a hostile period, agreed with Mr Turnbull’s assessment policies like the GP co-payment.
“We go back to the 2014 budget, there were policies there that resulted in a loss of trust between the Australian people and the government on health policy.”
In May, Ms Ley said she wanted to lift the freeze on Medicare rebates in the budget but was prevented from doing so by “Finance and Treasury”.
The AMA chief did acknowledge “inefficiencies” in the health system and expressed willingness to make improvements.
“It is true that the government should try and find ways of balancing its books but it’s not true to say that health spending is out of control,” Dr Gannon said.
“What we would like to see is a system where it’s easier for those who can afford a contribution to their healthcare continue to make that. It’s already common for a majority of GPs in Australia to privately bill a proportion of their patients.”
He said GPs and specialists should be rewarded for their services but that there should also be “protections inbuilt for the most vulnerable in our community”.
“Previous government policies didn’t enable GPs to protect those who can’t afford even a few dollars out of pocket.”
Leading up to the election, Labor promised to lift the freeze from January 2017 if elected, projecting it would cost the budget $2.4 billion over four years.
Both the AMA and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners ran campaigns against the Coalition’s stance.