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Home Speeches & Opinion Address by National President to annual conference dinner - May 6 2003

Address by National President to annual conference dinner - May 6 2003

On the occasion of the first national conference of the Health Services Union, the national president Michael Williamson spoke of the threat to Medicare:

It is indeed a privilege to have former Prime Minister Bob Hawke join us here tonight.
On coming to power in 1983, the development of Medicare was one of the first policy achievements of the Hawke Government, and still today, some twenty years later, it stands as one of the shining achievements of the Hawke Labor Government.

Last week the Howard government announced its plans for Medicare.

I believe that it offends the intelligence of the Australian people that the Government calls this a plan for a "Fairer Medicare" when clearly it is a plan to make Medicare much less fair by completely removing many people's access to bulk billing.

The fundamental fairness of Bob Hawke's Medicare lay in its promise of quality health care for all Australians.

That fundamental principle is that medical services in Australia should be available according to medical need, not a patient's capacity to pay.

This is more than a principle. It's the reason that, for nearly two decades, Australia's health system has been among the best in the world.

It's also the reason that Australians overwhelmingly support Medicare - because they know that their entitlement to health care, including hospital care, does not depend on how much money they have in their pocket at the time.

The Howard government's agenda is clear - they wish to destroy Medicare. Since his election in 1996, John Howard has been content to slowly run Medicare down by a process of stealth and attrition. Now the attack has become more direct.

Howard has been on the record over many years as an opponent of Medicare and now he has it well and truly in his sights.

Here in NSW, HREA is gravely concerned about the impact of the proposed Medicare plans on low to middle income working families. There are many families earning between $35 000 and $50 000 who will be hit very hard by these proposals. The likely outcome of the proposals is that bulk-billing will cease for all but pensioners and low income earners who hold a health care card.

Among our members there would be many families, hard working families on low to middle incomes who will be greatly disadvantaged because they will now have to fork out money for each and every visit to a GP.

It's not enough that workers contribute to Medicare through their taxes it seems, but now they will be expected to make a co-payment on every visit to a GP. It has been suggested that for a working family of four with an average number of GP visits, this will be an impost of around $500 extra per year for formerly bulk-billed GP and pathology testing. This is a cost that many families simply cannot afford.

With many low-income earners living from wage to wage, the prospect of a parent not having the money to take a sick child to the doctor is truly appalling. This policy will put many working Australians in the shameful situation that confronts citizens of other countries, including the United States, where people are denied medical treatment because they do not have the money to pay for it.

Another widely discussed consequence of this policy proposal is the impact it will have on the public hospital system. It has been predicted that this proposal will reduce the number of doctors who bulk bill and that this will drive more and more low-income earners into our emergency departments, seeking free medical care.

There is already so much pressure on the public health system that an outcome like this would have a devastating effect, stretching resources beyond their limit.

There is no doubt that this is a shifty and tricky Prime Minister that we are dealing with here. In my mind, it was no coincidence that Howard's Medicare proposals were announced the same day as the Therapeutic Goods Administration suspended the trading licence of PAN pharmaceuticals and began what has become a massive recall of complementary medicines. Any diversion from his full frontal attack on Medicare must surely have been welcomed by the PM.

We must work hard to ensure that Australians are not fooled by John Howard's pretence about saving Medicare.

We must make it very clear to our members and the community, that as a result of his proposed changes, doctors fees will increase like never before and bulk billing will be restricted solely to pensioners and health cardholders.

Now the challenge is for the Australian Labor Party to articulate a clear and unequivocal policy on how we will ensure that Medicare is retained and strengthened as a universal health system guaranteeing quality health care for all. This is an opportunity for the Labor Party to clearly differentiate itself from the conservatives by drawing a clear line in the sand and committing to Medicare.

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