Bill Shorten’s $1 billion cancer-fighting election fund


Peak bodies fighting for extra funding to combat breast, bowel, lung and skin cancer – the most common types in Australia – have ramped up their lobbying efforts in recent weeks, as have advocates for rare cancers and children’s cancers such as leukemia.

Cancer Council Australia chief executive Sanchia Aranda welcomed Labor’s $2.3 billion cancer package, including the $433 million for a new Medicare item number to allow cancer specialists to bulk-bill 3 million consultations over the next four years.

But she said the measure would only go some of the way toward addressing out-of-pocket costs that can exceed $10,000 for many patients – who experienced “bill shock” when they receive their invoice from the hospital after surgery.

“Patients are not fully aware that while the doctor is compelled to tell you their costs, they don’t always tell you about the cost of the anaesthetist or the pathologist,” Ms Aranda said.

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Royal Australian College of Surgeons president John Batten said he would “strongly advocate” for all members to sign up to Labor’s new Medicare item number, under which patients would get rebates of up to $150 for consultations – provided the specialists did not charge an out-of-pocket cost.

Mr Shorten said this would raise the bulk-billing rate for cancer specialist consultations to 80 per cent from its current 40 per cent.

“Patients will now have choices,” he said.

“If they go to a specialist who bulk-bills, as opposed to someone who just wants to charge whatever, there’s now competition against the specialists.”

While promising a new radiation centre on the NSW South Coast on Friday, Mr Shorten said it would be part of a $60 million investment in 13 such facilities across regional Australia, describing Labor’s cancer package as “the most important investment in Medicare since Bob Hawke created it”.

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It comes after Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiled a budget on Tuesday that promised to “guarantee Medicare” with a $1.1 billion investment to boost GPs and frontline health services, in a bid to ward off a revived Mediscare campaign.

Mr Shorten confirmed that Labor would match the government’s GP funding, along with $737 million to be spent over seven years on mental health.

Labor’s promised regional radiation funding – which exceeds the $45.5 million committed in the federal budget – would come out of a $300 million capital works fund announced on Friday.

Labor health spokeswoman Catherine King said $600 million for diagnostic imaging, part of the $2.3 billion package, came on top of the Coalition’s $606 million commitment in Tuesday’s budget, which the opposition would match.

“The average out-of-pocket cost for a scan right now is $100,” she said.

Labor’s plan is to soften the rules governing MRI scans to ensure that “any machine that meets minimum safety and quality standards” can be billed to Medicare for cancer scans.

And, Ms King said, Labor would also reform Medicare item numbers on X-rays, ultrasounds and CT scans to close out-of-pocket gaps.

There will be no changes to the way PBS drug listings occur if Labor wins government.

Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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