Health basics hit, but a bonanza for private sector
by Andrew Jackson A few tentative steps in the right direction do not make up for the devastation wreaked on the national health system by Costello's previous five budgets; nor does this budget address the criminal imbalance in public versus private spending. Mr Costello's biggest health budget gamble is with the lives of 65,000 Australians at high risk of heart disease, as he cuts subsidies for blood cholesterol lowering medication. The group of drugs, know as "statins", are prescribed by doctors because they successfully reduce heart disease and have few side-effects. Many specialists believe these drugs are not used widely enough, and that the government should be "encouraging" their use, not restricting access. For pensioners who require this medication, the monthly cost will rise from $3.50 to $60 dollars — this cost alone wiping out the $300 pensioner bonus in just five months. Mr Costello cleverly avoided a similar blow to diabetics foreshadowed in the Budget leaks of April, abandoning a plan that would have forced up the cost of syringes for those patients. The major spending boost in the Budget was the $520 million allocated to Medicare to allow GP's to provide better treatment for patients with certain illnesses. This is a win for the majority of Australians who rely on Medicare, and will allow for longer appointments for diagnoses and disease management for people suffering from: depression (2.4 million Australians); asthma (2 million); and diabetes; up to 500,000 people do not even realise they are suffering from the disease. Women's health is also to be targeted by GPs, with $72 million allocated to the diagnosis of cervical cancer. Rural Australia receives $13 million, allocated to offer 100 scholarships to encourage nurses to study and work in the outback, still only a token offer to an area badly-starved of funding. But while handing out the cash to new and popular (and pre-election) programs, Mr Costello still manages to slash a further $350 million from existing spending. Costello's proud announcement of $115 million in funding for an Alcohol and Education and Rehabilitation Foundation, a charitable trust set up by the Government to prevent alcohol abuse as well as petrol and solvent sniffing, is not "new" funding at all. The small print reveals that the Government found the money by scrapping a $90 million methadone programme. This again shows that Mr Howard's big- budget Drugs Awareness campaign was more about lip-service and self- promotion than tackling the current crisis. The Budget ignores the crisis in dental health, the $100 million Costello previously stripped has not been replaced, and the large number low-income households still unable to afford even basic dental care. Most importantly it must be remembered that Mr Costello's $900 million extra for the health budget over four years remains a pittance compared to his biggest budget handout. Howard's private health insurance rebate scheme remains firmly on-track to plunder $12 billion over the four years from public taxes, and divert it into the coffers of insurance companies and the private health system. Not one cent of that money actually goes into shortening hospital waiting lists, providing more staff or resources. The aim of the rebate is to draw more people out of the public health system, into the private, for-profit sector.