AMA seizes on Labor’s cancer plan to push for wider Medicare rebate hikes

It comes as Labor announces a $64.3 million plan to reduce Australia’s smoking rates, in what Mr Shorten has dubbed the most significant effort in the space since his party hit tobacco manufacturers with tough plain packaging laws.

The lung cancer pledge includes $40 million for an advertising blitz, and has the goal of reducing the nation’s smoking rate from 12.2 to 10 per cent of the population.

“Based on an evaluation of the first National Tobacco Campaign run in 1997, this investment could prevent as many as 55,000 deaths and deliver as much as $740 million in direct healthcare savings,” Mr Shorten said.

Health economist Henry Cutler said if Labor won the election it would need to keep a lid on costs by ensuring that its $600 million plan to deliver an extra 6 million free cancer scans did not result in wasteful and unnecessary testing.

“Once you reduce the price of a test to zero, that will increase the demand for testing,” said Dr Cutler, director of Macquarie University’s Centre for the Health Economy.

“You could imagine people who hear they can now get a ‘free cancer test’ going to the GP to get one then shopping around if the GP says no … We don’t want to start handing out MRIs for people when that diagnostic for that particular condition is not cost effective.”


And he questioned whether Labor’s $500 million plan to slash public hospital waiting lists would be effective, saying it could be difficult to lure oncologists back to public hospitals from private practice where they could charge much higher fees.

“You can’t just wave a magic wand and make hospital waiting lists disappear; state governments have been trying for a long time and we continue to see increases,” Dr Cutler said.

Grattan Institute health economist Stephen Duckett said ensuring all MRIs were “evidence-based” – and withholding rebates for unnecessary scans for patients with symptoms such as lower back pain – would enable Labor to make its free cancer scans budget neutral.

Labor’s lung cancer package also includes $6 million over three years to support Tobacco Free Portfolios’ work in eliminating tobacco from investment and superannuation portfolios, plus $15 million to help the Lung Foundation employ an additional 20 lung cancer nurses around the country.

And it includes $2.4 million for the Lung Foundation Australia to rollout awareness campaigns about workplace risks and to encourage people to see a doctor sooner if they notice symptoms of lung cancer.

Tobacco smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in Australia and the leading cause of cancer in Australia – with about 12,740 people diagnosed last year.

It has the lowest five-year relative survival rate when compared to the other top five most commonly diagnosed cancers.

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

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