So why is healthcare always our biggest worry? Perhaps because of the well-publicised waiting times for elective surgery in public hospitals. Or because most medical specialists charge fees far higher than the Medicare benefit, with the gap paid out of the patient’s pocket.
Australia’s health system is more reliant on out-of-pocket payments than most other rich countries. Part of this is the ever-rising cost of private health insurance.
This explains why the things politicians say about healthcare during election campaigns invariably involve spending more money. Governments boast that they’re spending record amounts (which is always true because both prices and the population keep rising) and promise to spend a bit more.
This time, Labor claims the Coalition has “cut” healthcare spending – by which it means that the Coalition hasn’t spent as much as the previous Labor government had planned to – and is promising to restore that funding (mainly in the form of the feds picking up a higher share of the states’ spending on public hospitals) and to spend more on reducing the out-of-pocket costs of cancer patients.
Are you detecting a pattern here? Because the health system has long been about as privatised as it could be – private hospitals, private health insurance, subsidised fee-for-service payments to self-employed GPs and specialists, co-payments for pharmaceuticals and for doctors who don’t bulk-bill – governments can never spend enough.
As presently organised, our system is a bottomless pit. Governments could never satisfy the demand that doctors and hospitals could generate if left to their own devices.
When you add federal and state, healthcare is by far the biggest and the fastest growing category of government spending – and thus the biggest reason we need to pay more in taxes each year.
It’s also our fastest growing employer. It’s certain to keep growing rapidly, not only because of the ageing population but also the ever-rising cost of advances in medical technology.
This isn’t bad, it’s good. The richer we get, the more we can afford to spend on top-quality healthcare. But that’s not to say we couldn’t be getting much better value for the dollars we spend.
Because our present badly organised system is driven mainly by doctors’ – particularly specialists’ – desire to protect and increase their incomes, whichever side of politics is in office, federal or state, spends most of its time between elections trying to hold back the growth in health spending.
They do this mainly by crude methods such as allowing backlogs and waiting lists to build up, freezing the level of Medicare rebates, increasing patient co-payments and delaying the approval of new pharmaceuticals.
Then, when an election looms, they approve a raft of new drugs, promise to spend more on a few things chosen to appeal to voters, and to spend $X million shortening surgery queues which, for some mysterious reason, seem to have built up.
That is, at elections both sides play Santa, not Mr Fix-it. Any plan to reform something would be bound to have some brand of specialists howling for your blood, and conning old ladies into monstering their local member.
In consequence, progress in reducing waste and improving the quality of care is slow. Doctors earn their living by fixing people who are sick. There’s little incentive to do what makes more sense: divert more of the spending into encouraging people to avoid getting sick in the first place.
After that comes more emphasis on early detection: better for the patient, better for the taxpayer. And the best way to improve prevention and early detection is to divert more money into “primary care” – by GPs and other health professionals, such as specially trained nurses, physiotherapists, psychologists etc.
GPs need to be shifted from providing acute care – charging a fee every time someone turns up for a consultation – to receiving larger payments from the government for accepting responsibility for helping a particular patient deal with a particular chronic condition, such as diabetes, for a period of time.
The Coalition’s record in making progress towards such a better, more integrated system is, at best, mixed.
The parts of Labor’s policy it doesn’t want to talk about – setting up a federal-state Australian healthcare reform commission – and the specifics of how it will keep its promise to encourage cancer specialists to bulk-bill, hold the promise of systemic improvement. But also the risk that the extra spending does more to help specialists’ pockets than patients’.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.
Ross Gittins is the Economics Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.