Co-payment victory, but Medicare war goes on

In early March, Health Minister Sussan Ley announced that she was scrapping the $5 optional GP co-payment announced in December 2014. This is the Coalition’s third backdown in three months on the GP co-payment. It is a victory—but the Coalition is still at war on Medicare.

Even while Abbott was telling parliament that the Medicare co-payment was “dead, buried, cremated”, Ley was flagging a “Plan C” Medicare attack in May budget.

Just as important, the Coalition are keeping the Medicare rebate frozen until 2018. By keeping the Medicare rebate at 2013 levels until 2018 the government is cutting $1.3 billion out of Medicare, the equivalent of $3 per GP visit. Health economist Stephen Duckett was right to call this a “co-payment by stealth”.

When Howard froze the rebate bulk-billing rates fell by 20 per cent in a couple of years. Some GPs are already ditching bulk-billing and charging the AMA rate of $70 for each visit. This will continue until indexation on the rebate is fully restored.

Medicare has been at the heart of Abbott’s woes. It was part of what drove the anger as Victorian and QLD voters took to the ballot box in recent state elections, and a key factor in the backbench revolt against Abbott’s leadership in February.

The fact that, in the face of this, the Liberals are trying for yet another Medicare “reform” shows how deeply they oppose universal healthcare.

Not only do they detest the idea that people can access high quality healthcare as a right, regardless of their income, but they see bulk-billing as a block on the profits that private health corporations could be making out of primary healthcare.

While the rebate freeze eats away at Medicare bulk-billing, the Liberals are also trying to eat away at community support for universal access, taking every opportunity to recast Medicare as a safety net for the poor and disadvantaged and asserting (contrary to all the evidence) that bulk-billing is “unsustainable”.

But universal health means bulk-billing for all. We need to fight to keep Medicare universal, keep Medicare public and keep Medicare fully-funded.

By Jean Parker


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