Our blind spot on health costs

A blog post by Mark Metherell, Consumers Health Forum’s Communication Manager.

A comforting thought for most Australians is that Medicare ensures people can get the health care they need regardless of income.

That notion gets seriously tested when you ask consumers, particularly those with serious and chronic illness, and they share experiences about their own and their family’s health bills.

There seems to be a blind spot in Australia when it comes to public awareness of the availability of care for those who need it but often can’t afford it. The signs are that a rising number of Australians are struggling to afford a reasonable level of care. 

Public focus on the issue of health costs has been sharpened by the news that the Government’s Commission of Audit will consider a proposal for a $6 co-payment to be charged to GP patients.

Anxiety about such a proposal has come through strongly in responses to an online survey the Consumers Health Forum has conducted in recent weeks seeking respondents’ views and experiences in dealing with out of pocket health costs.

To date, the survey has drawn 320 responses from people, more than 70 per cent of whom stated they had delayed going to the doctor when they needed to and half of whom attributed this delay to cost worries.

About three quarters of respondents had health insurance but also complained about the cost and benefits of private cover.

The survey, also posted on the Our Health Our Community Facebook page, has drawn a strong response with the majority of respondents attacking a co-payment approach and many also critical of what they get for their private health cover.

While we already know from data collected by the National Health Performance Authority and other agencies that ten per cent of more of Australians forgo some level of health care because of cost, the survey responses tells the story about the human impact of this on ordinary Australians and their families.

The stories reveal the pain and anxiety people face in having to put off a visit to GP, specialist, dentist or other health practitioners, sometimes for months, because of cost; of going without food to save for health bills; witnessing a deterioration in their health because they can’t afford the right care; of the widespread difficulties residents in rural areas encounter trying to get necessary routine care.

By themselves, the stories may seem isolated and prosaic --- typical of life’s hardships.  But read several of these cases and a deeper, more disturbing picture of hardship in our community emerges.  That is hardship and pain which a more accessible health system would remove. It also reveals that the universal health care system we think we have through Medicare is being eroded.

As CHF’s acting CEO, Rebecca Vassarotti, told the 30th anniversary Medicare Roundtablethe stories “speak of the growing gap in equitable access to healthcare in Australia… against this backdrop, we are concerned that current conversations about health financing are focused on shifting costs in the healthcare system, rather than understanding the impact of how the system works on consumers and what we need to do to maintain an equitable affordable health care system for all Australians. Most importantly, we are concerned about the marginalised consumer, the consumer who is still counting on the universal health care system to deliver better health outcomes.”

So far the new Federal Health Minister, Peter Dutton, has focused on the need to cut waste from the health in order to ensure we can retain an affordable system in the future.

The drive to confront waste and unnecessary spending in health is to be applauded. It’s something that consumers, as the users and the funders of health care expect and demand. But it is to be hoped that our health leaders do not have a blind spot when it comes to maintaining an equitable Medicare into the future.

A national health system is only as good as the care it delivers to those most in need of care.

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About the author

Mark Metherell

Mark Metherell joined the Consumers Health Forum of Australia as Communications Manager in February 2013. Previously he was the Canberra based health correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, a position he held since 1999. He was also medical reporter for the Age in the 1980s. In a newspaper career spanning 40 years, he has held a variety of other posts including news editor and defence and foreign affairs correspondent.