John Menadue. Health Policy Reform: Part 2 – Why reform is difficult. Health ministers are in office but not in power.

Policy Series.

In Part 1 on health policy reform I outlined the main areas where health reform is necessary. In Part 2 I examine the reasons why I think health reform is so hard. In part 3 I will consider ways in which the necessary path of health reform can be quickened.

The major barrier to health reform is the power of providers or at least their assumed power. The most recent budget showed that yet again.

A succession of Australian health ministers may have been in office but they have not been in power.

Aneurin Bevan who launched in the 1940’s in my view the best health service in the world knew a few things about health but more importantly he knew much more about political power and how to exercise it in the public interest. He drew on the strong support of the community, a minority of doctors and the majority of nurses. He won the day and not surprisingly the UK National Health Service was the centre piece at the London Olympic opening ceremony in 2012.

The power of insiders – or the faintheartedness of politicians

Reform disrupts established arrangements. In general, the longer those arrangements have persisted, the greater becomes the pent-up need for reform, meaning that reform is going to be disruptive to existing interests. By the same token, as arrangements become more entrenched, the more do those who benefit from them feel threatened, and the more political clout they develop to resist reform.

That resistance is often based on financial self-interest, but it also aligns with a general fear of change and professional conservatism. It is difficult for those who are “inside” a system – be they administrators, professionals or policymakers – to conceive of other ways of delivering services. Institutional inertia is a strong force. And in health care it is easy to lose sight of the fact that delivering services is not, in itself, the objective. That objective surely is serving the community by helping to keep the population healthy.

One group with a stake in maintaining current arrangements are those who administer health services. Health is a highly technical, large and complex field that is difficult for outsiders to come to grips with. This gives disproportionate power to health administrators on the inside to manipulate ministers.

“Joined at the hip” with these administrators are much the same vested interests (rent seekers) that batten on the health service and dominate the public debate. These are much the same vested interests who so selfishly and ferociously led the opposition to Medibank in 1974. They are still with us today but in a different guise. The AMA has a long and dubious history in opposing key health reforms going back to its opposition to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme In 1942.

These vested interests include the AMA, the Australian Pharmacy Guild, the private health insurance funds, Medicines Australia and the state and territory health department bureaucracies. In addition, there is a general “pro-business” push to open up all aspects of health care more to the private sector, particularly pathology and radiology.

Where possible, financial incentives should encourage practitioners to keep people healthy, rather than to deliver services to the sick. The perverse incentives in FFS come to play particularly strongly when health care takes on a corporate structure, where business objectives such as return on shareholders’ funds displace professional service objectives traditionally associated with medical practices. Businesses operate on the basis of expanding their markets, not on the basis of telling customers they may be over-using their services. The AMA, however, is turning a blind eye to the growing corporate takeover of general practise and the associated vertical integration into radiology and pathology.

The Pharmacy Guild strongly defends the privileged position pharmacists have gained through political influence. On the one hand the Guild strongly defends the many restrictions on competition enjoyed by pharmacists – prohibition on pharmacies in supermarkets, prohibition on price advertising, restrictions on location and ownership of pharmacies and exclusive rights to sell many non-prescription medications. On the other hand it does little to encourage integration of pharmacy with general practice.

It is not only in retail pharmacy that Australians are overpaying. Governments are also generous with taxpayers’ money for the mainly foreign pharmaceutical firms who are able to exploit their power in patents. Medicines Australia, the body representing manufacturers and distributors of drugs, has successfully lobbied the Commonwealth to pay high prices for prescription pharmaceuticals. Australia pays top prices: for pharmaceuticals. We pay $2 billion per annum more than New Zealanders pay for equivalent drugs. The last budget failed to properly address this overcharging.

The private health insurance companies are expensive financial intermediaries, receiving a $10b annual taxpayer subsidy through the rebate, and additional support in the form of the Medicare Levy Surcharge, which subsidises those with high incomes to hold PHI. Not even at the height of manufacturing industry protection were people actually given cash subsidies to buy Holdens and Falcons.

Private insurers don’t deliver any health services; they are simply high-cost financial intermediaries taking commissions. As I outlined in Part 1, PHI benefits the wealthy and most importantly weakens the power of Medicare to control prices. Now the private insurers are edging their way into general practice. The Managing Director of Medibank Private also reportedly told doctors that private health insurance policy holders should have priority in public emergency departments.

Government subsidized private insurance is a major threat to health care in Australia. At first sight it may appear to relieve public budgets and to take pressure off public hospitals, but that’s not the way it plays out. It actually sucks resources out of the public hospitals. The remuneration of most specialists in private hospitals is multiples of the remuneration of specialists in public hospitals. And as PHI pushes up costs, governments, still left with funding a large part of health services, find that they become passive players, accepting prices set by private service providers and insurers.

Yet in spite of this economic danger, and the example of the clearly dysfunctional American system, governments in this country – Coalition and Labor – have been reluctant to take on the PHI industry. Before the 2007 election Kevin Rudd wrote to the industry assuring it that their taxpayer subsidies would continue. The industry never publicly defends its $10 b pa subsidy. It is too ashamed. Instead it lobbies in private.

In an economy where many traditional industries, from manufacturing through to print media, are facing huge competitive pressure and disruption, health care is seen as one last remaining growth sector, offering easy picking for business.

Those are the private vested interests. We also have eight state and territory health department bureaucracies supported by their ministers. In a nation where state governments feel that more and more financial and political power is accruing to the Commonwealth, it is natural that they defend their shrinking turf. Such considerations override any concern to see an integrated national system. In response, the Commonwealth is reluctant to stare down the parochialism of the states.

Reform is possible

Australian governments have a strong record in economic reform. In the 1980s the Hawke-Keating Government took on vested interests, and negotiated a wide-ranging set of reforms in the manufacturing, transport and financial services industries. Earlier, in the mid-1970s, the Whitlam Government, when it introduced Medibank, successfully stared down the AMA and the health insurers. Although the Fraser Government unwound many of these reforms, the Hawke Government successfully resurrected universal public insurance in the form of Medicare.

But there has been no significant reform of the health sector since then. In 1997 the Productivity Commission recommended a comprehensive inquiry into health financing, but no government has initiated such an inquiry. Corporate interests have become more involved in health care, and PHI has become embedded once again.

Governments generally over-estimate the power of lobby groups. They can make a lot of noise – particularly when, as a result of successful rent-seeking in the past, they have accumulated large funds to spend on scare campaigns .But the capacity to make noise does not equate to a capacity to influence voters. Opinion polls consistently show that the public believe Coalition governments are too much influenced by big business, which means reforming governments should be able to gain electoral advantage from standing up to rent-seekers.

The problem is not just about financial self-interest, however. It is also about the inertia of established practices, and an incapacity of those on the “inside” to imagine any significant variation on current arrangements. Practices such as the separation of pharmacies from medical services, fee-for-service funding, the dependence of private hospitals on private insurance, the separation of medical from hospital services in private hospitals, and so on, have become entrenched in the thinking of policymakers, politicians and many journalists. There is a deficit of imagination, an incapacity to think beyond the present.

A part of the problem lies in the Commonwealth bureaucracy. Commonwealth Ministers for Health are very dependent on the Department of Health and Ageing, particularly, as is often the case, when ministers are not across the issues and don’t have a clear policy program themselves. Aneurin Bevan showed how important political leadership is.

DHA is ill-equipped for policy reform. Rather, its objective seems to be to keep the peace with provider lobbies, and to keep the minister out of any public brawl or argument.

The Department is structured in ways that reflects the interests of providers such as doctors and pharmacists, rather than on the basis of community interests, such as acute care, chronic care or demography. It has expertise in administering existing programs but it has little economic expertise. Fiscal concerns tend to crowd out any consideration of economics.

In fact the Department doesn’t even effectively integrate the Commonwealth’s own major programs, let alone make any real progress in bridging the Commonwealth and state divide.

Late last year in its Capability Review of DHA, the Australian Public Service Commission said that the Department ‘is hierarchical and siloed, … the Department does not have a high level strategic policy framework … policy discussions are largely constrained within work silos … there is reluctance from the Department to consider new and changed policy directions’.

The Australian National Audit Office has also just reviewed the Fifth Community Pharmacy Agreement. It reported ‘Six broad principles and objectives were included in [this agreement] … The Department is not well positioned to assess whether the Commonwealth is receiving value for money from the agreement overall “               

The Ministerial/Departmental model in health has failed. It is incapable of contesting the power of the rent seekers. The community is effectively excluded.

Unless the health debate is taken to “outsiders”, away from the insiders – the rent seekers and vested interests– we are unlikely to see significant progress in health reform. The vested interests invariably win out over the public interest.

Political struggles between the public and rent-seekers are not uncommon, but there are reasons why in health care the public interest has a hard time securing a voice. Most of the public most of the time have little contact with health services. The intense users tend to be the chronically ill (who are reasonably active but do not constitute a majority) and those who are nearing the end of their lives and are not in a position to exert political influence. It is unlike services we all experience such as education or transport, where strong public lobby groups naturally arise. Also, health lobby groups are able to exploit the public’s trust in health care provider’s services – a trust which is well-justified on the grounds of professional competence, but which should not logically extend to trust on financial or political matters.

With a few exceptions the media does not really understand health issues. Press releases from pharmaceutical firms, pathologists and health insurers and other rent-seekers provide easy material for under-resourced journalists. It is easy for governments and so-called “business interests” to rise scare campaigns about the affordability and performance of government health services.

The power of vested interests in health must be strongly contested.

In Part 3 I will address governance and issues of process which are necessary to break through the inertia and counter the power of the vested interests that batten on the health system.

John Menadue chaired the NSW Health Council 2000 and chaired the SA Generational Health Review 2003. 

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