Wednesday 15th June 2005
Safety net promise thrown overboard
The Howard government has broken a ‘rock-solid, iron-clad’ election promise by raising Medicare’s safety net thresholds.
Between 300,000 and 400,000 Australians will miss out on a rebate over the next year due to the threshold increase, independent experts estimate. The government is refusing to release figures showing the numbers affected.
The safety net was the main plank of the government’s election pitch last October when the Health Minister, Tony Abbott, gave ‘an absolutely rock-solid, iron-clad commitment’ that the government would keep the $300 and $700 thresholds.
But in April, in another blow to the poor and sick, and to the government’s credibility, the thresholds were raised to $500 for pensioners and concession card holders and $1,000 for others.
The government has chosen to target the poorest and most vulnerable people in its attempt to find savings in the health program, said Dr Richard Denniss, health researcher for independent think tank, the Australia Institute,
‘The government expects a $6 billion budget surplus this year yet it is still prepared to sacrifice the health of the weakest members of society,’ he said.
The higher thresholds mean most people will only be reimbursed 80 cents in the dollar when their annual out-of-pocket costs for out-of-hospital care hits $1,000.
Before benefiting from the safety net, most people will have to spend more than $1,000 on covering the gap between the Medicare benefit and what the doctor charges.
The average out-of-pocket cost to see a GP is $14.70 so even pensioner patients would need to make 34 visits in a year before the safety net applies, according to Catholic Health Australia’s chief executive, Francis Sullivan.
During last year’s election campaign the government estimated the safety net would cost $440 million over four years. In April it claimed it had suddenly discovered that costs had blown out to about $1 billion.
Tony Abbott was forced to deny that he knew the real cost of the safety net before the election, and that his ‘guarantee’ not to raise the thresholds was a deliberate lie.
On Channel Nine’s Sunday program, interviewer Laurie Oakes put it to Abbott that the government knew before the election that the cost of the safety net had trebled.
LAURIE OAKES: ‘The lies are still being told, aren’t they? We know that Treasury…said that to abolish the safety net would cost $1.3 billion. In other words, they knew that was the cost of this scheme. That was known before the election. Yet John Howard claimed the other day that it’s only recently they’ve become aware of the extent of the problem. So we’re still getting lies.’
TONY ABBOTT: ‘Well, no. The government was aware of a significant blowout before the election.’
LAURIE OAKES: ‘Your word’s not worth much any more, is it? A Tony Abbott commitment now will raise horse laughs.’
As Opposition Leader Kim Beazley commented: ’This is so typical of John Howard. Say anything, do anything, promise anything to get yourself elected and then after the election present the Australian public with the bill.
‘It beggars belief that a promise made in October last year cannot be sustained in April this year.’
Raising the thresholds will do little to slow the escalating cost of the safety net, partly because its uncapped nature places no limit on doctors’ fees covered.
The architect of Medicare, Professor John Deeble, says the scheme encourages doctors to expand the range of services they recommend.
Monash University professor of health economics, Jeff Richardson, agrees the cost of the scheme will continue to escalate.
‘Unsurprisingly the safety net helps people with access to expensive medicines and that tends to be the wealthy and they’re not deterred by an increase in the safety net,’ Professor Richardson said.