The new head of the Australian Medical Association has warned conservative politicians to stop “fiddling around” with Medicare, saying it is a “totem” for voters who do not want it changed.
Dr Michael Gannon told the National Press Club in Canberra that Labor’s so-called Mediscare campaign in the federal election campaign was successful because there was a “very strong undercurrent of fear and uncertainty” among voters as a result of the Coalition’s 2014 budget.
“The Coalition government went to the election oblivious to, or unprepared for, the community’s concerns about health services,” Dr Gannon said on Wednesday.
“Right or wrong, co-payments became code for attacks on poor and disadvantaged people in the community. They were seen as attacks on sick people. They were seen as attacks on working families with young kids. In short, the co-payment strategy was a political disaster.”
Dr Gannon said Medicare was a “totem” for voters who supported it regardless of their political beliefs and conservative politicians accepted this.
“When Australians say ‘Medicare’ what they mean is that they want ready access to public hospital treatment, free treatment in public hospitals and they want subsidised treatment to see their GPs and for their basic healthcare . . . I think that wherever we sit as individuals on an ideological continuum, I think collectively the Australian people have said that they are very comfortable with the state, to a large extent, being in charge of their health and their education. They don’t want the right of politics fiddling around with them,” Dr Gannon said.
Dr Gannon, an obstetrician and gynaecologist from Perth, took over the presidency of the Australian Medical Association from Brian Owler in May.
He has promised to repair the group’s relationship with the Coalition, which he said had been partly damaged by speaking out on asylum seekers.
Dr Gannon made it clear he believed it was the responsibility of the Commonwealth, rather than state governments, to find a sustainable, long-term solution for hospitals’ funding.
When states and territories failed to meet national targets for waiting times and treatment in emergency departments and for elective surgery, Dr Gannon said, it was as a “direct consequence of the Commonwealth failure to fund their share of public hospitals”.
“The states and territories have narrow tax bases, with an unhealthy reliance on old, inefficient taxes, and immoral sources of funding like that from pokie machines. The Commonwealth government needs to step up,” he said.
Dr Gannon also urged doctors to consider their fees where they charged above the scheduled fee saying people were often “afraid” of seeking specialists’ advice and should not also be worried about the bill.
“Excessive fees are not appropriate. I’m pleased to say that I didn’t have a torrent of resignations when I asserted that I’ve never seen anyone who’s worth five figures for two hours’ work,” Dr Gannon said.
“I think that there is some quite amazing work that gets done out there every day by urologists, by general surgeons, by vascular surgeons. At the same time, I would not stand before you and try and defend $5000, $10,000, $15,000 gaps. I think that they are difficult to defend . . . It’s up to individual doctors to be very considerate of their patients and their means, taking into account how afraid they are, let alone the limited means they may have to pay for out-of-pocket expenses.”