Journal of Australian Political Economy No. 92, pp. 98-105.
Just before the 2022 federal election, Mark Butler, now the Minister for
Health in the Albanese government, spoke to the National Press Club,
praising the courage of the Hawke government in creating Medicare in
1984. His speech also set modest priorities for a prospective Labor
government, committing to (1) improve the digital health record and make
the MyHealth record actually useful; (2) develop multidisciplinary care;
(3) establish a new funding model for ‘MyMedicare’; and (4) grow the
medical workforce, with special mention of nurses and pharmacists (Butler
2022). Significantly, Butler did not commit afresh to Medicare as a
universal health scheme free at the point of delivery, the key element of
the original 1984 scheme that he praised. In an environment where,
politically, it seems that taxes cannot be increased, perhaps this ideal may
be an impossibility, but it is surely significant that it is no longer stated as
Currently, Medicare is quietly dying as the low rebates cause doctors to
abandon it. Australia is moving to a US-type private system by
default. This has resulted in large amounts of hand-wringing rhetoric, but
so far little action. This short article comments on the changes initiated by
the current Labor government during its first year and a half, contrasting
these with the deep-seated problems needing to be addressed if better
health outcomes are to be achieved.
The government has made some minor changes to Medicare which came
in with great fanfare on November 1, 2023. There were new item numbers
for new specialist technologies or treatments and an increased Medicare
rebate for GPs, up to $41.40 for a standard visit for a RACGP member,
which is 40.6% of the AMA fee. Doctors without the RACGP qualification
still get $21, which is 20.6% of the $102 AMA fee.
When Medicare was born, the Medicare rebate was 85% of the AMA fee.
The rebate has risen at half the inflation rate for 39 years, so doctors now
feel ripped off every time they see a Medicare patient. Labor blames the
disparity on the rebate freezes of the previous LNP Coalition governments,
but its own record is poor. Successive governments of all types have
deferred to the private health lobby and are starving Medicare, slowly
defaulting towards a principally private system, as in the USA. This is a
deeply-troubling prospect because the US health system has been
recurrently criticised (Commonwealth Fund 2021) – and rightly so –
because it makes access to health care dependent on ability to pay. Notably,
however, it is the world’s best system at turning sickness into money.
The other recent Labor ‘reform’ was to allow pharmacists to process
prescribed medications to cover patients’ requirements for 60 days, rather
than 30 days, thereby halving the costs of prescribing and dispensing.
While this may seem helpful, patients are often confused by complicated
generic names and generic brands; and compliance or discontinuation of
medicines is a largely unquantified problem. These are existing problems
with the current arrangements for dispensing medications: the recent
policy change, while well-intentioned, does not redress them. It transfers
resources from professional staff to the pharmaceutical industry.
The ‘Strengthening Medicare Taskforce’ had good medical and allied
health representatives and support. Its December 2022 report defined the
problems but, trying to avoid controversy, positive suggestions were thin
on the ground. A deeper analysis and more comprehensive approach to the
redress of health issues is needed.
Basic problems in the health system
Diverse funding sources causes cost-shifting
Fundamentally, no-one is in overall control of the health system. It has a
number of different funding sources: the Federal and State governments,
the Private Health Insurance industry (PHI), Medicare and individuals
themselves. Workers Compensation (WC) and Compulsory Third Party
(CTP) insurers also put in a bit. These arrangements lead to a situation
where each funding entity attempts to shift costs without any real care for
the overall cost of the system. Private entities such as pathology and
radiology also have an interest in providing more services, whether they
are needed or not.
The broad division of the health system is that public hospitals and
emergency departments (EDs) are State-funded, and non-hospital services
are Federally, PHI or self (patient) funded. There is some overlap,
however, because the State’s provision of some community-based services
allows them to save on hospital-bed days; and private funds paid to State
hospital in-patients are eagerly sought. The starvation of Medicare (which
reduces the Federal government’s spending) has resulted in more patients
going to EDs at higher (State) cost, as well as increasing PHI and patient
This cost-shifting has evident implications for the affordability of health
care: notably, a recent study showed that Australia, when compared to 10
other countries, scored poorly on its measure of affordability
(Commonwealth Fund 2021).
A new health paradigm is needed
Yet more fundamentally, there is a huge problem with the conceptual
model of the health system. In common parlance, the ‘health system’ is the
‘paying to treat illness’ system. Paying doctors to see and treat patients is
seen as the major cost and is the most politically fraught element in the
Historically, everyone was assumed to be healthy and had episodes of
either infectious diseases or surgical problems. They went into a hospital
for a brief period and either recovered or died. The legacy of this is that
heroic interventions are over-resourced and the more cost-effective early
interventions are under-resourced.
Infectious disease is now relatively uncommon, notwithstanding the recent
and ongoing coronavirus concerns. Most disease is chronic; and the
objective is to maintain health for as long as possible and to support those
who need support in the community rather than in institutions. ‘Health’
must be re-defined as a state of physical and mental wellbeing; and
maintaining it as ‘demand management’ for the treatment system.
Life-style diseases of diet, obesity, smoking, vaping, alcohol, drug-use and
lack of exercise need attention. It might be commented that these habits
are more determined by the political economy of the products than by any
health considerations; and the government should intervene to re-balance
this market failure.
Hierarchies, cartels and corporatisation
The medical system is hierarchical with specialists at the top and GPs at
the bottom. The specialist colleges have produced less practitioners than
would have been optimal. The starvation of General Practice has led to
increasing specialist referrals for simple procedures. Most patients are
happy to go along with this, though often much less happy about the rising
costs. Practitioners tend to work down to their station rather than up to
their capacity. GPs, if given the appropriate additional education and
empowered to act, could do what quite a lot of specialists do now, while
nurses could take the load from GPs; and, in terms of home support, a more
comprehensive and flexible workforce needs to be developed.
Private medical insurance systems are a further source of problems. They
have marketing, churn, profits, liability and fraud issues; and they make it
necessary to account for every item of every procedure. While the
corporations watch every cost, the regulator cannot. Corporations buy
medical practices and take up to 55% of the gross revenue. Smaller
radiology practices are being gobbled up as investments (Cranston 2020).
If overheads are defined as the amount of money put in compared to the
amount paid for treatments, Medicare costs about 5% and PHIs, as they
are regulated in Australia, about 12%. In the USA, the private health funds
take up to 35%, and Australia’s CTP system got close to 50%. A universal
health insurance system could avoid many of these costs and would be far
superior from a social equity point of view.
Similar problems are evident in the provision of care for people with
disabilities. Labor pioneered the NDIS when last in office a decade ago,
and rightly claims this as evidence of its commitment to redress the
previous neglect. However, the NDIS can be considered as a privatisation
of the welfare system. It overlaps medical system functions and is poorly
regulated. If its efficiency is judged by the percentage of money put in that
is paid to the actual workers delivering the service, care is not very
Retirement care arrangements have major flaws too. Aged-care
accommodation is largely driven by the real estate industry; and access to
continuing care is an add-on of often dubious quality.
What should the government do?
The problems described above are diverse, deep-seated and not easily
rectified. However, a government intent on staying in office for a series of
terms could heed the call for some big thinking, drawing on the experience
of health practitioners themselves. Here is a list of what might be done,
becoming more medical and more politically difficult as it progresses:
• Keep people healthy with education, clean water, sanitation, housing,
good food, regular exercise, high vaccination rates, road safety,
universal swimming lessons, CPR and first aid training and the active
discouragement of smoking, vaping, alcohol and drug use, junk food
• Provide housing with graded community support options for those
people with disadvantage or impairment. Create a registration and
insurance system for home and community support services, so that
individuals can buy standardised services from other individuals.
• Maintain fixed staff-patient ratios related to the disability
classification of residents in institutional care.
• Make maximum use of community and school interventions and
support services such as District and Community nurses and School
nurses, mental health support networks, Aged Care Assessment
Teams, Hospitals in the Home etc.
• Address health problems as early and as low down the support and
treatment hierarchy as possible, by empowering those who provide
• Create a meaningful regulatory, inspection and enforcement system
for support services, both community and residential, and for
workplaces and recreational facilities.
• Use the medical information system to research drug and treatment
problems without referral. Have GPs work in Health Centres with
community support workers as far as possible; and improve
communication with data collection a by-product of normal work, not
an additional imposition.
• Have independent evaluation of the numbers needed in the specialties
and pressure the colleges to provide these numbers. Use waiting times
as an initial index.
• Initiate either university-based or college-based continuing medical or
professional education, with mandatory refresher exams every
• Have universal professional indemnity insurance, with doctors and
other health professionals unable to be sued if they report all incidents
of sub-optimal outcomes within 48 hours of becoming aware of them,
and participate in regular quality control meetings.
• Publicise and promote organ donation, end of life plans, wills and
enduring powers of attorney as sensible steps in life-management.
• Evaluate Intensive Care interventions in QALY (Quality-Adjusted
Life Years) terms, researching their outcomes and comparing them to
earlier intervention initiatives.
• Change the composition of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory
Committee so that it has no pharmaceutical industry representative on
it; and remove ministerial discretion from its decisions. The previous
system evaluated new drug listing approvals with a cost-benefit
analysis (Doran et al. 2008), but the Howard reforms of 2007,
following the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement and lobbying by
Pfizer, put a drug industry representative on this committee, making
its negotiations more transparent and thus more difficult for the PBS
to negotiate prices (Access to Medicine Working Group 2007).
• Work towards replacing Workers Compensation and CTP insurance
schemes with income guarantee schemes (this will only be possible
when Medicare allows timely treatment).
• Create a credible and indexed scheme for paying medical
professionals which does not have KPIs that distort performance.
at the point of delivery and stop subsidising PHI. It might be noted
that the Government currently quotes Medicare and PHI costs
together as a sum rather than itemising the two, which serves to
disguise the subsidy to PHI (Parliament of Australia 2022).
The current federal Labor government has made statements about health
policy reform and done minor tinkering during the first year and a half in
office. Based on this start, it is doubtful that it will have the courage to
make the necessary major changes, addressing the systemic problems.
Fine rhetoric is unlikely to achieve much. That makes it doubly important
to develop proposals for more fundamental reform. Written with this
intention, the suggestions made in this article could be the basis for
tackling the fundamental institutional and political economic issues
problems associated with personal and societal ill-health.
Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans trained as a surgeon in Sydney and the UK
and is a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. He currently works as a
GP with interests in workers’ compensation and third-party injury. He has
been a tobacco activist and an elected member of the upper house of the
NSW Parliament. He has Master’s degrees in Occupational Health and in
Butler, M. (2022) ‘Address to National Press Club, 2 May,’ available:
Commonwealth Fund (2021) US Report, available:
Cranston, M. (2020) ‘Radiology enjoys a post-virus buying boom’, Australian Financial
Review, available: www.afr.com/policy/economy/radiology-enjoys-a-post-virus-buying-
and the idea of innovation’, Journal of Australian Political Economy, 62, pp. 39-60.
Galloway, A. (2023) ‘Federal crime syndicates using cash vouchers and gifts to steal NDIS
funds’, The Sydney Morning Herald, available: www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/criminal-
Parliamentary Library (2022) Health overview, available:
PBS (2007) ‘Access to medicines working group’, available: www.pbs.gov.au/info Access to
Sax, S. (1984) A Strife of Interests: Politics and Policies in Australian Health Services,
Sydney: George Allen and Unwin.
Searles, A., Jefferys, S., Doran, E. and Henry D.A. (2007) ‘Reference pricing, generic drugs
and proposed changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme’, Medical Journal of Australia,
187(4), pp. 236-39.
Strengthening Medicare Taskforce (2022) Taskforce Report, Commonwealth Department of
Health, available: www.health.gov.au/sites/default/files/2023-02/strengthening-medicare-taskforce-report_0.pdf.