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Monday, 20 March 2017
Page: 2412

Ms SWANSON (Paterson) (19:50): We have been hearing some rumblings and some vague references in the past few days about the government thinking it may lift its forecast six-year Medicare freeze. Well, I say hallelujah; it is high time. Australians know that when they go to the doctor, because of these cuts and this freeze, they are paying too much and waiting too long for the health care they need and deserve, but an end to the Medicare freeze, if it comes, is not nearly enough. Every one of this government's savage cuts to the healthcare budget must be dropped in the upcoming budget. These cuts will mean the cost of vital medicines and the cost of life-saving scans, Pap smears and blood tests will all go up. These cuts will cause patients to pay more and more out of their own pocket at every step of the way in our struggling healthcare system. Not only will patients pay more at the doctor, but they will also wait longer to see specialists and to have surgery.

On the point of waiting too long, I would like to tell the House about an elderly couple from my electorate of Paterson. They contacted my office last week. This fellow said he had been trying to get an appointment for his wife to see an ear, nose and throat specialist for four years—four years in Australia in 2017! He had gone to the John Hunter Hospital. I did not believe it, actually, when he said this. I did some research and, yes, it is true. In fact, our local paper, The Newcastle Herald, reported last May that waits to see ear, nose and throat specialists at the John Hunter Hospital had blown out to three years. Almost a year later, a wait of four years is entirely believable. It is disgusting, reprehensible and unfathomable but, in the circumstances of what has been reported in the media, entirely believable. For four years the lovely gentleman's wife has had extreme discomfort—persistent earaches, headaches and fluid building up in her ear—not to mention the fear and dread of what might actually be wrong with her and causing these awful symptoms.

Every year for four years, her husband phoned the John Hunter to make sure she was still on the list. And every year, he was assured: 'Yes, she's still on the list. Just hang in there.' Finally, there was the last phone call, and, lo and behold, she had an appointment. After an X-ray, an MRI and several doctors looking at her, she was diagnosed with a rare condition that, if left untreated, could lead to facial palsy and complete hearing loss. The tumour is most likely benign, and for that she and her husband are entirely and genuinely grateful. But it does need to be surgically removed—and quickly.

Mr Speaker, a four-year wait to see an ear, nose and throat specialist is not acceptable. The Newcastle Herald last year reported that waits for orthopaedic surgeons and gastroenterologists could be just as long. Every Australian should have access to affordable, quality health care when and where they need it. This is Labor policy. A Medicare freeze for six years and ripping funds out of public hospitals: I have to say this is Liberal policy.

Doctors have been clear that the government's cuts are driving a decline in services. I had an email from a doctor in my electorate who stated: 'I am a doctor, a GP, who moved to Maitland some 10 years ago to provide service to the community where there was a great shortage of doctors. Over the past several years, we have had the government's decision to freeze Medicare rebates. Since then, there has been continuous financial pressure on me to run the business. There are four other doctors working at this medical centre, but a Medicare freeze is not as important to them as it is to me because they get their commission and go. I am the one who has to pay for everything. Some owners of medical practices say that it is better to close the door, go to a big city and work on commission, saying, "At least we'll know what money we'll make per day." If this happens, many people will suffer from a shortage of doctors in our area. I have to say I cannot pass on the costs to patients. It is not fair. People here already have financial difficulty.' That is one terrific doctor from my area.

If it comes off, yes, it is good news that the government is going to put an end to this Medicare freeze, but it surely must come off. It is just the beginning though. Proper funding for our hospitals must also be restored. An end to the Medicare freeze will not be enough to undo the damage. The Australian Medical Association and a litany of people across our country know that they are not being well served by this government and they are not being well served by a healthcare system in dire need of funding and attention.