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21 Jul 2016

Caption: AMA President Dr Michael Gannon speaks to the media following his first post-election meeting with Health Minster Sussan Ley 

AMA President Dr Michael Gannon has declared he would be “gobsmacked” if the Federal Government took the Medicare rebate freeze to the next election, and has called for a “firm timeline” for its end.

Speaking following his first meeting with Health Minister Sussan Ley since the knife-edge Federal election, Dr Gannon said unwinding the freeze would be a good start to Government efforts to rebuild trust with the public on health policy.

“I would be gobsmacked if the Government took an ongoing freeze to the next election,” the AMA President said. “They got the scare of their life on health, and that was probably the policy which hurt them the most.”

While Federal Cabinet is yet to meet and Ms Ley did not make any commitments, Dr Gannon said the meeting, which he hoped become a regular occurrence, established common ground, including an acknowledgement that health was not the area of the Budget in need of “repair”.

“It is true that the Government should try and find ways of balancing its books, but it's not true to say that health spending is out of control,” Dr Gannon said. “Our discussions did focus on the fact that health is not the problem with the Budget…health should not be the focus of Budget repair in this Turnbull Government.”

Treasurer Scott Morrison has left open the prospect of removing the rebate freeze, though he has warned that scrapping the $2.4 billion policy would have to be offset by savings elsewhere in the Budget.

“When things come off the table, other things have to go on because our obligations to reduce the deficit, to return the Budget to balance, to address the concerns raised by the agencies which can have an impact on our [AAA credit] rating,” Mr Morrison said on ABC News 24. “Holding to this trajectory we've set out in the Budget on fiscal repair and seeing that actually work through the Parliament, and seeing those measures actually being legislated…that has got my absolute focus, because that is my responsibility as Treasurer.”

The AMA campaigned hard during the election on the Medicare rebate freeze amid warnings it would force many GPs to stop bulk billing, increasing the risk that the sickest and poorest would defer seeing their family doctor until they needed much more expensive hospital care.

Both Labor and the Greens promised to reinstate rebate indexation from 1 January next year, and before the 2 July poll the AMA called on the Coalition to match the commitment.

At his meeting with Ms Ley, Dr Gannon said that: “If we didn’t already know it, I think that the Australian people see what they get from GPs and public hospitals is very important to them”.

Ms Ley, who in May indicated that she would like to the see the freeze scrapped, responded that the Government had “listened to feedback during the election campaign, as I’ve talked to practitioners in the last week I’ve listened to feedback so we’ve got a really solid foundation on which to build this relationship and exciting policy for the future”.

However, the Minster was non-committal on getting rid of the freeze, and the AMA President said it would be the subject of further discussions.

But he said the end of the freeze should be a priority for the Government.

“Unravelling the freeze would be a great start, a good sign of good faith from the new Government…and the sooner the better. I will be looking for serious undertakings and a firm timeline from the Government,” he said.

After springing surprise savage cuts in the health sector in its 2014 Budget, the Coalition has struggled to gain traction in the policy area ever since, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has admitted those policies, which included two failed attempts to introduce a GP co-payment and massive cuts to public hospital spending, had laid “fertile ground” for a Labor scare campaign over the future of Medicare.

Since the election, the Government has sought to reclaim some of the ground it lost by engaging more closely with the health sector, particularly the AMA.

Mr Turnbull has already met with Dr Gannon and, in his speech unveiling his new Ministry on 18 July, made special mention of his hopes for a closer working relationship with the AMA.

Dr Gannon said it was gratifying that Ms Ley had made meeting with the AMA “her first order of business” since being reaffirmed in the Health portfolio.

“The Government has shown a willingness to listen to the AMA and a willingness to engage more closely on health policy,” the AMA President said. “[From] very early preliminary discussions with the Minister today, [there] was a willingness to listen…and when governments talk to doctors, when doctors talk to government, we've got a really good chance of coming up with the best health policy.”

“I don't think it's smart to get doctors offside, and I think it’s smart to listen to all stakeholders in the health industry. I think that the Government will make good policy if they talk to doctors, if they talk to nurses, if they talk to other people at the coal-face, dealing with patients everyday, whether that’s in the community, or in hospitals. Good health policy is listening to those people who deal with patients every day.”

Mr Gannon met with Ms Ley soon after the AMA released Position Statements detailing the important role played by doctors as stewards of the health system, helping minimise waste and making best use of the available resources.

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Adrian Rollins

Published: 21 Jul 2016