The Australian Medical Association has called on the government to “reset” its attitude to health expenditure by using Tuesday’s 2020-21 federal budget as an opportunity to support strained areas of the health sector with increased funding.
AMA president Dr Omar Khorshid on Monday said that while the federal government has made some “very welcome investments” in Australia’s health and welfare systems in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a substantial increase in health spending was needed.
“The pandemic has shown the strains on so many parts of our health system, particularly aged care, mental health, and protections for our frontline healthcare workers, as well as the need to keep this deadly virus out of our Indigenous communities,” he said.
“While we all hope that a vaccine will be found, and found soon, the reality is that we could be living with this added strain on the health system for some time.
“The pandemic has demonstrated the strength of the Australian health system, and the remarkable dedication and selfless actions of all frontline healthcare workers. But it needs help, now. This government has the opportunity to put an indelible stamp on the provision of health care at a time when the Australian public appreciates their healthcare system as never before.”
There were a number of health areas in desperate need of funding prior to COVID-19, Khorshid argued, and the AMA previously urged the government to “dramatically lift spending” on these areas in a pre-budget submission released in January.
For example, pre-pandemic, Australia was spending just 9.3% of its GDP on health, compared to 16.9% in the US, and 9.8% in the UK.
Meanwhile, emergency department times and the hospital bed ratio for older Australians were already worsening, while the waiting times for elective surgery were longer in 2019 than they were in 2008-09, Khorshid said. He noted that these and other areas of the health system would continue to worsen due to pandemic if adequate funding was not provided.
“The proportion of Australians with private health cover has fallen for 20 consecutive quarters — five years — a decline that is only likely to steepen post COVID-19, as household disposable incomes decline,” he said.
“The private health system accounts for about 60% of our elective surgery. Without a strong private system, our public system cannot stay afloat.
“Almost 85% of patients see a GP each year, yet spending on general practice accounts for less than 12.7% of total commonwealth government spending on health … This needs to be lifted to 16% to support GPs to deal with the growing challenges of an ageing population and chronic disease and to help reduce pressure on our hospital system.”
The AMA has also called for at least 5% of the health budget to go toward prevention measures, and for telehealth to become a permanent part of the health system.
In regards to aged care, the government should provide the sector with a “substantial investment”, including minimum staff-to-resident ratios that reflect care needs and 24-hour on-site availability of registered nurses.
“The vulnerability of our aged population has been horribly exposed by COVID, demonstrating a relentless driving down of standards in aged care,” Khorshid said.
On top of these pre-existing problems, the pandemic has also put further pressure on the mental health of Australians. Khorshid said the government must be “prepared to support the community through programs like JobKeeper and JobSeeker for as long as it takes” to address this.
Labor commits to centre for disease control
Earlier this year the AMA also called for the government to establish an independent national centre for disease control.
On Tuesday Labor announced it would set up an Australian Centre for Disease Control within the health portfolio if it won the next federal election, as Australia was the only country in the OECD not to have such an entity.
While the body would not have statutory independence like the AMA has suggested, it would provide independent advice to government, according to Guardian Australia.
Under Labor, the centre would monitor health threats, manage Australia’s medical stockpile, and work with medical service providers, and state and international governments, among other things.