Medicare must not be dismantled by stealth

Save_Medicare.jpgMr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (12:14): This year is the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Medicare by the Hawke government. It was established on the principle that all Australians, no matter what their background or circumstances, should have equal access to health care. For many it has been lifesaving. When Medicare was introduced Australia did not have a universal healthcare system. As Prime Minister, Bob Hawke warned that without it two million people faced potential financial ruin in the event of a major illness.

With the 30th anniversary of this important national institution, we on this side of the House fervently hope that it enjoys a 35th birthday, because for regions like mine it really makes a difference. In my electorate we have a higher than national average incidence of a lot of chronic diseases—diabetes, for example. The instance of sufferers of diabetes as a national average is around about 5.6 per cent of the population. In the Illawarra region it is around 6 to 6.5 per cent, close to one per cent above the national average. In my view, the government has a responsibility to make sure that patients like these have access to primary care, because if we have learnt anything about dealing with chronic health conditions over the last decade it is about ensuring that people have access to decent primary care, and that includes access to their general practitioner.

Slugging these patients with additional charges to visit their GP is not the answer. It appears that everyone but this government understands this point. Providing universal access to GPs is an opportunity to ensure that we are able to detect these conditions before they take hold. It is an opportunity for the general practitioner to sit down and put in place a health plan for the person who is at risk of contracting a chronic health condition. Ultimately, we all safe money by these sorts of intervention.

We are seeing a pattern unfold where the government has consistently said one thing before the election and then after the election done a completely different thing. Before the election the Prime Minister said he would not introduce any new taxes, but now we are seeing a dressed-up tax. The proposal for a $6 surcharge is nothing more than a GP tax. It is nothing more than providing another tax on the services that are provided by our GPs when somebody wants to visit their GP. Not only is the GP tax a broken promise to every Australian; it is a tax that is going to hit our health system hard. It will have a knock-on effect for hospitals, because people who cannot afford to go to their GP will go to the emergency department of the local hospital. It will clog up the hospitals, the waiting lists will get even longer and the public health bill will get even higher. If we know anything about the incidence of cost shifting, we know that it is a lot cheaper for us to treat a patient in a GP surgery than in an emergency facility at a general hospital.

This is a cruel tax that will hurt families right across the country. And it is going to have a big impact in my electorate. We have seen an increase in bulk-billing rates over the last six years in the Illawarra area, and in Throsby in particular. In my electorate 91.7 per cent of all GP visits are bulk billed.

Mr Danby: What percentage?

Mr STEPHEN JONES: It is 91.7 per cent, member for Melbourne Ports. There is a reason for that. The general practitioners in my area understand that the cohort of patients in my area require bulk-billing in order to have access to GP services and primary health care. It is a cruel tax which is going to impact directly on people like this, and I suspect that I will not be the only person who will stand in this place to raise these sorts of concerns.

In the House a few days ago we heard the Prime Minister utter that he was the best friend that Medicare has ever had. All I can say, Mr Deputy Speaker, is that with friends like this Medicare does not need enemies.