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Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Page: 286

Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (13:52): The date 1 February, just gone, marked Medicare's 33rd birthday. It is 33 years since the introduction of Medicare by the government of Bob Hawke. It is 33 years of universal health care—a Labor initiative which has ensured that access to health care for all Australians is determined by an individual's Medicare card, not their ability to pay or their credit card. It is 33 years of peace of mind for Australians in the event that their loved ones—their children or their parents—need medical care that is affordable and accessible. Thirty-three years on, Labor again finds itself fighting to save Medicare from a Liberal government that sought to dismantle it from day one.

Let's not forget that when Gough Whitlam first introduced universal health care in the form of Medibank, back in 1974, Billy Snedden, then leader of the Liberal Party, said of that landmark: 'We will fight this scheme continuously and in the end we will defeat it.' It was later to be dismantled by Malcolm Fraser. Now 33 years old, Medicare had not seen such a concerted attack until recent times, with the advent of the Abbott government. On 1 February this year, the fight was taken up by Labor with the establishment of a Medicare task force inquiry. The first in a series of these public hearings to be held around the country was convened in Wyong, in the seat of Dobell on the Central Coast. The committee was chaired by Sharon Claydon, and included the deputy chair, Dr Mike Freelander, and the member for Dobell, Emma McBride. The committee heard from local patients, GPs, allied health professionals and local service providers. They were telling the truth to all who would hear them—which is certainly not this government—about their experiences under the new regime imposed on the sector by a Liberal-National federal coalition government.

While there are many key areas where this coalition government has put Medicare and the health system in general under duress, the most burgeoning concern at the moment is the freeze on the Medicare rebate for GPs. Remember: that freeze came in after the Abbott government had its cruel plan for a $7 GP tax—an up-front charge for every visit to every doctor, for every scan and for every blood count—loudly and convincingly shouted down by the people. So then they brought in that tax by stealth, freezing the GP rebate for five years while simultaneously allowing doctors to charge more, taking the limitation off gap payments. What the freeze on rebates has done is make the business model for GPs unworkable. We have had many examples of this. Some of the evidence regarding skin cancer and the change in the way funding is provided based on the larger the size of your skin cancer the more funding the doctor gets back is delaying early access to doctors. There is a general trend in delaying treatment. This has been backed up by the evidence secured by the Medicare task force in the hearing at Wyong, which was told that the latest data from the local Primary Health Network revealed that 15,000 people from a population of 323,000 across the Central Coast have delayed seeing their GP because of this government's policy. In some circumstances, patients are paying up to $70, some even $100, to see their GP. Often these are people on pensions, on concession cards, who are having to make decisions about whether or not they can afford to see their GP. Local Liberal members like Lucy Wicks and others across the country deny the evidence that the task force is receiving. In fact, they deny their own figures. We actually have evidence from the government. If they do not want to listen to the people then they should at least listen to the facts, but it seems that they prefer to continue to recite the 'alternative' facts, otherwise known as 'lies', about diminishing access to health care that is a critical part of Australians' general inheritance under Labor. In out-of-pocket expenses, we know that there has been an increase of 4.67 per cent across the country and an increase of 4.92 per cent in New South Wales. People on the other side can say all they like about bulk-billing rates being up, but the reality is absolutely to the contrary. GPs and members of the public are telling us that they are sick and tired of the terrible impact of the freeze.

What we have seen from the government is an attempt to cut down the government contribution to Medicare. Always remember: we already pay a Medicare levy. This is a government that wants to slug you twice for a service. The day before the election, Mr Turnbull pulled $1.7 million out of his pocket to give to the Liberal Party. Here in this parliament he is asking Australians to pull more and more money out of their own pockets to access basic health services. Samantha Armytage asked Malcolm Turnbull: 'Can you guarantee our viewers will pay no more to see the doctor due to this freeze?' He said: 'Sam, absolutely.' His guarantee is not worth a jot. Under Abbott and Turnbull, Australians have to pay and will continue to pay more until Malcolm scraps his unfair health policies.