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Industrial: How Low Is Low
Industrial: Cloak and Dagger
Unions: Bad Medicine
History: Right Turn, Clyde
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International: Union Proud
Politics: Howard’s Sick Joke
Indigenous: The year of living dangerously
Review: Lights, Camera, Strike!
Culture: News Front
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Howard’s Sick Joke
In the United States medical bills cause over 2,000,000 personal bankruptcies each year.
To avoid this problem we have a universal system of public health insurance in Australia called Medicare.
Just how successful Medicare has been can be measured by the fact that one of the most strident critics of this universal health insurance system, Prime Minister John Howard, has been unable to directly dismantle it.
"I thought that we had a very good system in the very early 1970s before there were some changes made that I don't think made it better but made it worse," Howard told a TV reporter in 2003.
So what was Howard's 'very good system'?
"It was a system that meant many Australian families faced the cruel choice between getting no treatment or paying to go to the doctor, and even paying to get treated in a public hospital," Labor's then health spokesperson, Julia Gillard, told the National Press Club back in 2003. "It was a system where charity was often the basis of the provision of medical care."
Whitlam's health Minister, Paul Everingham, had pointed out in the early seventies that, under Howard's 'very good system', medical bills were the single largest cause of bankruptcy in Australia, just as in the US today.
Medibank, introduced by the Whitlam Government in 1975, was the first attempt to deliver an affordable, equitable and high quality health system to all Australians.
When the Whitlam government fell in 1975 and was replaced by Malcolm Fraser's coalition government Medibank, as a universal health insurer, was scrapped.
But the genie was out of the bottle. People had seen how a universal health insurance system could deliver fairness and dignity in health care.
Following the election of the Hawke Labor government in 1983 Medicare was introduced.
Howard, who had vehemently opposed what he called "socialised medicine", was even forced to promise that he would not abolish Medicare if elected in 1996.
But there's more than one way to skin a cat, and there's more than one way you can dismantle an effective, universal public health insurer.
One of the key planks of Medicare is bulk billing. The ability of Australians to access health care that is paid for by their contributions from their pay packets, with the cost being met by the federal government.
Under Howard bulk billing rates have slumped by over ten percent, forcing many sick Australians to once again have to cough up cash if they need to see a doctor. The average payment to see a doctor if you are sick is currently running at just under $25.
Out of pocket medical expenses have risen 75% under the Howard government.
This has pushed many people into casualty wards run by the states, shifting the financial burden from Canberra to state governments.
Howard introduced "safety nets", claiming that Medicare was never meant to be universal, a statement rejected by the system's architects.
This attempt to turn Medicare's great strength, the fact that it was there for everyone, into a stigmatised 'welfare" medical system was exposed with health minister Tony Abbott's backflip on his "rock solid, iron clad" commitment to safety net thresholds of $700, raising to $1000 the amount families had to shell out before Medicare assistance kicked in.
The Department of Health admitted that more than one million Australians now miss out on the Medicare safety net as a result.
The effect of the private health insurance rebate has been to hand billions of dollars to profit driven private health funds - money that many health professionals say should be going into the nation's public health system.
Successive Howard Government health ministers have argued that there needs to be a cap on health spending - there appears to be an exception to this rule for private health funds.
Bruce Childs from the Save Medicare Alliance, a coalition of community, religious, health and consumer groups, has called on the federal government to use the record budget surplus to restore Medicare to world-class standards.
Opinion polls consistently show the vast majority of Australians would rather see increased funding on health than yet another tax cut.
Childs says the alternative is the US model, a system where the quality of the care you receive, or whether you receive it at all, depends on the size of your hip pocket; just like under Howard's 'very good system'.
"Far from preserving the basic principles of Medicare - universality, equity, access, equity, efficiency and simplicity - the Howard Government is taking us down the road to an American system of mostly private health spending, leading to inflated costs and reduced quality," says Childs.
"The United States spends almost twice as much on healthcare as Australia as a percentage of GDP, yet has lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality rates, and vast health inequalities - if you can't afford to pay, you just don't get treatment."
To learn more about the save Medicare Alliance call (02) 8595 2134 or email [email protected]
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