May is budget month for our federal government, and they’re leaking bite-sized summaries of possible policy changes and cuts to funding to get everyone in a frenzy. And nothing says ‘frenzy’ than cuts to free health care and pensions, right?
I’ve mentioned before that our current government is a conservative one. I’m not delighted by that, but it is what it is. However, being conservative means it’s more likely to pull back on funding public programmes. To some degree, this is probably inevitable. There is a push-pull between liberal and conservative governments in this country. The liberals spend money, the conservatives save it (or that is what they and the media would have you believe. In truth, it’s a lot more complex than that. You just have to go digging in the right corners to find out, and you have to know who’s writing the news to know where to dig But that’s another story).
One policy change which has caught the attention of the public in the lead-up to this budget is the suggestion that there should be a co-payment for bulk billed GPs.
I should clarify for those readers who don’t live in Australia: our national healthcare system, Medicare, covers most medical fees for permanent residents and citizens. Some doctors’ practices are completely covered by Medicare, and are known as ‘bulk-billing’ practices. Other private practices bill the entire fee to the patient, but Medicare still covers a base amount, which the patient gets back as a rebate.
Naturally, it costs money to deliver healthcare to the people for free. And the government would like to recoup some more of those costs. Therefore, there is a move to introduce a six dollar co-payment fee for bulk-billed patients. The government argues that this is a minimal fee and would help both to maintain the level of services we have, and to keep costs down. Welfare groups argue that it’s the end of free healthcare and that it will prevent people from seeking medical help.
On the surface, the government appears to be right. What’s six dollars? It’s a cup of coffee and a chocolate bar. It’s parking for a couple of hours in the city. It’s pittance. And how often do people need to go to the doctor anyway? Surely, even those on very low incomes can scrape together six dollars. Welfare groups are making a fuss over nothing.
Except they’re not, because if you’re counting every cent, six dollars is a lot. Six dollars is two litres of milk and the cheapest brand of bread and possibly a banana or two. Six dollars can be breakfast for the family and possibly lunch. Six dollars is being able to pay for the bus to get to work or school on the day before payday. For those on a very tight budget, six dollars is not coffee and chocolate. Those are unaffordable luxuries.
Dismissing that there are hundreds of thousands of people for whom six dollars helps balance the weekly budget shows just how out of touch politicians are. It also ignores what happens when people cannot afford to go to the doctor. They go where they don’t have to pay: the emergency department of the local hospital. And some of them wait until they’re very sick to go to hospital, putting more pressure on the medical staff to treat a serious illness, and raising the stakes for the patient who should have seen his or her local doctor weeks before.
I appreciate the fact that a rising aging population puts pressure on the health system. But it’s also clear that several of the cuts to budget spending this year seem to be on programmes where spending money will save money in the long term, or where they fill a niche in the community not addressed by anyone else. It’s also likely that asking people to work until they’re 70 years of age before they qualify for the pension is going to be difficult to stomach, especially for those in jobs with manual labour.
Selling these cuts to the people is going to be even more difficult, in light of the government’s recent purchase of fighter jets to the tune of around $12 billion. Now, I’m not saying we should demand that our air force fly out-of-date equipment, but it is rather poor timing in light of how badly our economy is apparently suffering, regardless of how many different politicians from both sides of the aisle support the investment.
Obviously, we are all going to have to wait until the budget comes out in a couple of weeks to find out exactly where the cuts will be hitting and which areas will be affected. However, what’s clear in the discussions by the treasurer and other politicians in recent days and weeks is that while they’re arguing over billions of dollars to balance the budget and restrict or avoid deficit, individuals are doing the same with far smaller amounts, and with far greater and more immediate consequences. What’s clear is that the poor and the disadvantaged and the elderly are going to be those who are gaining least from these cuts, and the impact of the sweeping changes suggested by the treasurer will be severe, for those individuals who are already some of the most vulnerable in our society.
For a country which has prided itself on being lucky, I can’t help but wonder how lucky some of these people feel now. I can’t help but wonder how many politicians would agree to such changes if they had to budget down to their last six dollars every pay week, or work in a manual job for a forty-hour week in the sun at the age of 70. I can’t help but wonder if, when our treasurer says ‘It is about the we, not about the me’, he’s not really talking about himself or his colleagues. And I wish that even if they aren’t going to be the ones who make the sacrifices, and if they aren’t going to have to live on the aged pension when they retire, that at least they could admit that a tough budget is tough for anyone but them.