After facing widespread criticism, and a number of hurdles in the Senate, the Abbott government continues to rework its plans to undermine Medicare. The federal government’s first budget, announced last year in May, included the not unexpected $7 co-payment fee to see a doctor.
This immediately sparked outrage from doctors, nurses and ordinary people, who understood that this was a step towards dismantling universal healthcare. Flowing on from the already strong anti-Abbott mood, tens of thousands of people attended rallies across the country protesting the budget.
GPs and healthcare professionals spoke out against the proposal pointing out that forcing people to pay, even a modest amount, would cost the healthcare system more in the long run. Inevitably people would avoid routine and preventative health checks and would more likely end up in emergency departments and hospitals.
In an attempt to reduce the backlash from the co-payment fee proposal, the government announced the $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund, financed in part by the co-payment. Cynically the budget already contained cuts to medical research in other areas including the CSIRO.
The government struggled to find support from crossbenchers in the Senate as they came under immense pressure from the public and the protests against the budget. However as the protests waned the government sought to rework its proposal and came up with the idea of reducing $5 from each bulk billing rebate they paid to GPs.
Soon after, Abbott also announced an additional cut of $20 to rebates paid for doctors’ consultations of less than 10 minutes. This would have forced doctors to pass the cost onto patients.
The proposed $20 cut was due to come into effect on January 19, however Health Minister Sussan Ley announced only days before that it was to be scrapped. This was mainly due a fierce campaign by doctors condemning the cuts.
The ultimate goal of the government is to unwind the free public healthcare system and introduce a for-profit, user pays system. Such a move would be a disaster for ordinary people as Australia’s healthcare system would end up looking like the dysfunctional US system.
While Labor says they are opposed to the cuts, they have said they would support freezing rebates and would even look at reducing short consultation payments. The Rudd and Gillard government reduced spending on public health and in the states Labor promote the expansion of the for-profit sector.
Instead of relying on one or another capitalist party doing deals behind closed doors, if we want to defend and extend the healthcare system we must return to the methods that actually won free universal healthcare in the first place – mass action.
Universal healthcare was not gifted to people by politicians. The precursor to Medicare, Medibank, was introduced during by the Whitlam Labor government under immense pressure from below. This was at a time during the post war boom that saw a huge increase in strikes and protests.
The Fraser Liberal government immediately attempted to undermine Medibank in 1976 by introducing an extra 2.5% levy to finance it. There was an option to opt out if you took out private health insurance.
This attack was met with huge resistance. A 24-hour nation-wide general strike was called by the ACTU and this began the process of weakening the Fraser government. The refusal of the ACTU leadership to escalate this industrial action allowed Fraser to introduce the cuts, however the ground swell in favour of free, universal healthcare helped to throw out the Fraser government, and force Labor under Hawke to reverse the changes.
If Abbott’s attempts to wind back Medicare are going to be beaten, it will take more than criticism and parliamentary deals. Unions and community groups will need to return to mass action, like the general strike and protests that took place in 1976.
By Toby Dite