21 Feb 2014

Is this the end of Australian and Spanish universal healthcare?

Demonstrator of the 'Marea Blanca' movement.
Over the years I’ve learnt to be wary when someone says they want to modernise a service. No surprise I didn’t like it when Australian Health Minister, Peter Dutton, said this week that he wants to modernise the Australian Health Service (Medicare).

According to The Guardian Australia, he said the health system was “riddled with inefficiency and waste.” A similar argument is being used by the Spanish Government to privatise the health care system. Yet in a Bloomberg Study 
on the Most Efficient Healthcare Systems in the World released last year, Australia ranked 7th overall, Spain 5th (http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2014/02/20/how-does-australias-medicare-compare) Do they really need these changes the current governments in both countries are trying to implement?

In Spain healthcare is a constitutional right and no one has to pay for any Dr’s visit or medical test. However, the current government is trying to dismantle this service and privatise it. They say the country can’t afford to pay for it but at the same time try to impose a private sector both professionals and patients refuse to accept. In fact, the Dr’s Unions in Madrid, joined the Marea Blanca movement (a coalition of professionals and service users against the privatisation of healthcare services) in taking the Madrid Government to court over the changes they wanted to implement and won. Their claim was that the ‘efficiency’ excuse was false and the Governments drive is ideological.

I think Abbot’s government decision to get rid of bulk-billing in GP surgeries is also ideological. Increasing the presence of private enterprise in healthcare services provision won’t benefit the majority of the population.

We already see the negative impact of a system that allows two tiers of service. One only needs to stop by the medical centre on Hunter St, Newcastle. I haven’t been there for a few months but at the time, the waiting area had a massive sign warning visitors that no abusive behaviour will be tolerated. The reception staff were unfriendly. There was a leak on the roof, behind the reception desk, which meant staff had to put a bucket on the floor, to collect the water in rainy days. More than once I waited for hours to see a doctor. I saw a different doctor every time I went and a sign at reception informed that that one of the doctors refused to talk about contraception. In summary, it wasn’t the best. Although it may have improved since my last visit, I think the centre isn’t the best because there’s a perception by the healthcare administrators and the service users that it doesn’t matter as one doesn’t have to pay to get seen by a GP and therefore can’t demand too much. This kind of thing lowers the expectations on the health service and encourages people to go to a private GP.

It also discourages people from making constructive complaints to improve the service. Someone I know, who had a bad experience as a public patient said to me ‘it’s my own fault, I should have gone to a private doctor.’ I think this is a clear example of what happens when you allow private and public organisations provide the same service and Government support private healthcare. In any case, as it is, Australia ranked 7th place for efficiency in the Bloomberg world-wide ranking. Do we really need changes to Medicare?