Last week another important suite of changes to Medicare came into effect. Since the election of the Albanese government, we have seen a willingness by government to introduce a range of policies designed to update and strengthen Medicare to position it better for the future.
The wrecking-ball days of nine years of conservative governments bent on undermining and weakening Medicare have come to an end, but their legacy will remain for a while. The Liberal-National government era started with an attempt to introduce a compulsory copayment, and when that was stymied, an attempt at slow strangulation, by freezing Medicare rebates, started. The intended result was achieved: a decline in bulk billing. The collateral damage of worse access was ignored.
Unfortunately, the take-away lesson learned by the medical profession seems to be that all governments are not to be trusted. The rhetoric of medical leaders does not distinguish between Conservative governments, which at best have only ever been reluctantly accepting of a universal system, and Labor governments, which are viscerally committed to the scheme that their predecessors implemented, protected, and nurtured.
This was most recently evidenced in an extended piece in Inside Story, by veteran journalist Mike Steketee, where the current president of the Australian Medical Association, Steve Robson, was surprised at the current government’s response to the need to strengthen Medicare: “something unexpected happened” he said, “Government listened”. Nicole Higgins, President of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, however, recognised the importance of political context: “For the first time in decades we have a government that’s committed to strengthening Medicare and general practice care.”
However, the mess Labor inherited will take longer than a few months to fix.
The architecture of Medicare has remained essentially unchanged since the 1980s, indeed its lineage clearly dates from the 1970s. Since then, there have been major epidemiological transitions with the rise of chronic disease and an increased prevalence of mental illness. The supply-side has also changed with fewer small medical practices structured as partnerships, and more corporate ownership. Primary medical care in rural and remote Australia is mostly in a parlous state despite a revolving door on National Party Ministers for Rural Health.
No contemporary service, business, or organisation can survive almost a decade of malign neglect. The legacy left by Liberal health ministers Dutton, Ley, and Hunt is a Medicare scheme sorely in need of repair, because of the slow erosion of the value of rebates, and the failure to respond in any meaningful way to changed circumstances other than to commission a talkfest of reviews, task forces and committees. These appear to have been established to create a semblance of activity, provide photo opportunities, and distract attention from the subtle, ongoing undermining which was at play.
Labor’s recent changes – especially trying to strengthen the affinity between patients and practices – will provide the basis for future changes, including strengthening multi-disciplinary teams which must be the basis for care for people with multiple chronic diseases, and preventive interventions to improve health.
Under these changes – the marketing label is ‘MyMedicare’ – people will be able to ‘register’ with a practice. This will give practices a picture of those who see the practice as their main source of care and identify opportunities for the practice to reach out to those patients for preventive care. Initially the focus of MyMedicare will be patients who are ‘frequent hospital users’, with the exact definition of that term still being refined. The idea is that better primary care services might have helped avoid some of these admissions, benefiting both patients and the hospital system.
Further announced changes include increasing the bulk billing rebate to help arrest the decline in bulk billing. The decision to increase the prescription quantities that can be dispensed by pharmacies to 60 days’ supply rather than 30 days’ supply for a number of common medications will free up time of general practitioners to respond better to demand, as well as reduce costs for consumers.
Development of urgent care centres will improve access to care but it’s still too early to tell what impact they will actually have.
Good as these changes are, there is much that still needs to be done. Workforce supply is one of the top issues, but this cannot be disentangled from workforce roles and relative remuneration. The former is under review, but the latter appears to be still a policy black hole. Part of the Medicare promise is about access to public hospital care, yet few would say that people can get the right care, on time, every time. And the ‘D word’ – dental care – remains unmentionable.
What gives one cause for optimism, however, is that the context is a sympathetic government, one committed to equity, not one trying to undermine equity and return to a residualist mindset.