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Healthcare cuts cause budget backlash

March in May protestors rallying against changes to Medicare. Photo by Carmen Cita

Cuts to healthcare announced in the federal budget have sparked widespread concern for the future of affordable and accessible healthcare.

The proposed cuts to public hospital funding and imposed surcharges on GP consultations and prescription medications have triggered protest around the country.

While all Medicare recipients will be affected by the rising costs, low-income earners will be hit hardest.

The $5 prescription fee and $7 patient contribution for GP visits are among the most unpopular of the Abbott government’s sweeping budget reforms.

The Salvation Army’s annual Economic and Social Impact Survey shows that one in four low-income earners can’t afford basic medical treatment. Salvation Army spokesperson Major Peter Sutcliffe believes the number of people unable to access affordable healthcare will only increase as a result of additional fees.

“We work with people who already struggle to afford the basic necessities from week to week. Thirty-four per cent of our clients can’t afford medicine when needed,” he said.

Mr Sutcliffe is concerned that the hike in prescriptions and mandatory co-payments will be prohibitive.

“If you live on less than $35 per day, as many Australians do, you often have to choose between bills, rent, food and medical treatment,” he said.

“We need to look after the people in our community who are vulnerable and marginalised. Universal healthcare is not a handout, it is a helping hand up.”

Lisa Kremmer, spokesperson for the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association (NSWNMA), condemns the budget as an “abhorrent” attack on the health system.

“These measures undermine our universal healthcare system and contradict the spirit and the intention of Medicare,” she said.

“Raising the price of GP visits will force many patients to defer diagnosis and delay treatment. This will put more pressure on our already over-burdened emergency wards and could literally put lives at risk.”

Premier Mike Baird warned that up to 300 public hospital beds may be forced to close as a result of the budget cuts, which the NSWNMA estimates could deprive 27,000 patients from accessing a hospital bed each year.

NSW health minister Jillian Skinner has tried to defuse public alarm, claiming that good financial management will ensure the continued funding of all beds.

“[The] cuts to health announced in the federal budget are savage and will force the states to find further efficiencies to maintain existing frontline services and meet growth,” Ms Skinner said.

Ms Kremmer also rejected economic justifications for the budget cuts.

“Our healthcare system is affordable and sustainable. There has been no explosion in costs — it has remained stable at 9 per cent of GDP since the 1980s,” she said.

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