Jul 31, 2019

Matters of Public Importance – Health – Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (15:19):  The health policy failures of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government can perhaps be best summed up by two key facts: after six years of Liberal government, out-of-pocket costs for health care have never been higher, and waiting lists for hospitals have never been longer. The Liberals will never understand—nor will the Nationals—that those two key facts are very clearly linked.

But in relation to out-of-pocket costs, I do want to say this: this is not an unintended consequence of the government’s policies. Some people would say the Minister for Health is incompetent. In this regard, I would disagree—he has set out to achieve a policy outcome, and he has achieved it and he’s achieved it quite competently. The Liberals have been trying, as a matter of deliberate policy, to increase out-of-pocket health costs for six years. It started in the 2014 budget with the $7 GP tax. There is one reason that that $7 GP tax is not the law of the land today, and that reason is this side of the House, who blocked it in the other place. Members opposite wanted a GP tax and they couldn’t get it through the House. So then they set about a cunning plan to achieve it in a different way. They achieved it in a way which doesn’t require the approval of the parliament: the Medicare freeze. I say this: they’ve achieved their aim. They’ve increased out-of-pocket costs of health care via the Medicare freeze. They’ve been at it for six years and, to give them their due, they’ve got it done. The member for Flinders has done what the member for Dickson could not achieve—increase out-of-pocket costs substantially. The government’s own data shows the average out-of-pocket cost to see a GP is now $39.55, up 36 per cent since this government came to office!

It’s not just general practice. It’s even worse, much worse, when we think about specialists. Out-of-pocket costs to see a specialist on this government’s watch have gone up 58 per cent since this government came to office! This is having a real impact, not just on the wallets of Australians but on the health care of Australians. Each year, 1.3 million Australians delay or avoid medical treatment because of the cost! We pride ourselves in Australia on universal healthcare. It’s not universal while that’s happening. It’s not universal while 1.3 million Australians are missing out. While this government is in office, 660,000 Australians skip seeing a GP because of the cost, and 538,000 of our fellow Australians avoid seeing a specialist, care that’s recommended to them, because of the cost.

On this side of the House, we understand that the impact of this is not equal across the country. People in regional areas are 25 per cent more likely to skip or avoid medical care because of the cost. People who live in the most socially and economically disadvantaged areas of our country are 33 per cent more likely to skip medical care because of the cost. Women are a staggering 66 per cent more likely than men to skip or avoid medical treatment because of the cost. There is electorate by electorate data which is available to all honourable members to check, and some honourable members opposite should check that data. I didn’t hear the members for Bass and Braddon in their maiden speeches talking about the fact that their constituents are three times more likely to skip medical care than residents of eastern Sydney. That didn’t come up in their speeches, and it hasn’t come up since. They should be representing the people of Tasmania and they should be standing up for them.

People who skip primary health care don’t get better—they get sicker. This is what we were talking about at the beginning—the link between those two policy outcomes—they get sicker and they go to hospital, because eventually they have to. Almost a million more people now than when the Liberals were elected are presenting at public hospital emergency departments. Of course, the Liberals promised to fund 50 per cent of the growth in hospital costs, and they were lying when they promised it. They were lying when they promised it and they have breached that promise. We are seeing the impacts of this in hospital after hospital across the country. We are seeing waiting times and waiting lists the highest they have ever been.

There were some recent figures from Tasmania—talking about the members for Bass and Braddon—in relation to waiting times. I’ll just share with the House one of those figures. People who present at Royal Hobart Hospital emergency department with mental health concerns have an average waiting time of 19.4 hours. The longest wait is 183 hours. That’s seven days—more than seven days—that people are waiting to be admitted to the hospital when they present at the emergency department of Royal Hobart Hospital with mental health concerns. This government thinks that’s okay. This government thinks that it’s acceptable in Australia in 2019 for that to be the case. Well, it is not acceptable and Australians deserve better than that.

Another thing Australians are waiting to access and are paying more to access is MRIs—MRIs across the country. That’s why the Labor Party went to the election with a commitment for Medicare licences for MRIs—an extra 20 MRI licences. Every single one of those commitments we took to the election was for a public hospital—every single one. In relation to MRIs, the government eventually caught up with us. They delivered five MRIs in their first five years in office—just five. But they eventually caught up and started committing to MRIs. They didn’t commit to the people of Macquarie. I was talking to the member for Macquarie this morning about MRIs. There is not one Medicare licensed MRI in her electorate. We committed to Katoomba Hospital. The member for Macquarie knows her constituents are having to travel to the inner city, to the North Shore of Sydney, at inconvenient hours and times to get an MRI treatment. We said that’s not good enough.

The government didn’t match us in Macquarie. What the minister did do is deliver an MRI in Parkside for Sound Radiology. There are nine MRIs within five kilometres. He didn’t deliver one for Victor Harbor or Gawler, where there are no MRIs. He delivered one for Parkside and then said, ‘I didn’t know the CEO was the Vice-President of the South Australian Liberal Party.’ After being found out he said, ‘Oh! That Liberal Party! That vice-president!’ Apparently, if you are a radiologist vice-president of the Liberal Party, if you ‘have a go you get a go’. If you have a go at the minister, you get an MRI, if you’re the Vice-President of the Liberal Party of South Australia. We know whose side the minister’s on. He’s on the side of vice-presidents of the Liberal Party, not the side of patients in Macquarie, in Victor Harbor, in Gawler, in regional Australia, who are travelling for miles and miles to get an MRI. No, they miss out—on this minister’s watch. But, if you’re connected, if you’re a senior office holder of the Liberal Party, you pick up the phone, you have a handy, cosy, little meeting with the minister, then you get an MRI licence—a lucrative MRI licence—on this government’s watch.

The Australian people deserve better than this. The Australian people deserve truly universal health care. They deserve a healthcare system which says your Medicare card is what you need, not your credit card. You shouldn’t have to reach into your wallet for your credit card when you need urgent medical care. You shouldn’t have to travel from one end of Sydney to another. You shouldn’t have to travel into Adelaide from regional South Australia to get an MRI. You should get the treatment you deserve, as your birthright as an Australian. That is what the Labor Party believes. That is what the Labor Party believed when we created Medicare. That is what we believed when we created Medibank, against the vociferous opposition of those opposite, who abolished it when they came to office and who opposed Medicare at every step of the way, and have sought every day to dilute Medicare, to reduce Medicare.

We invented Medicare, but we recognise more needs to be done. We recognise that until Australia has truly universal health care we are diminished as a country and we are diminished as a society. We, as the people who invented Medicare, as the people who fought for Medicare, will grow Medicare, will protect Medicare and will nurture Australia’s universal healthcare system. We will recognise that Australians, regardless of where they live, deserve to have that health care as a birthright—not at the whim of the minister, but as a right for all Australians.