The Guardian June 6, 2001


Federal Budget:
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.

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