Oh, what a system! Defence of Medicare is crucial, but why stop there?

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Recently I heard either a politician or a journalist describe the current Medicare scheme as being in need of an overhaul. Talk about an understatement — it needs much more than an overhaul, and don’t I know it!

Two years ago I was informed by my friendly general practitioner that, added to the woes of suffering from onset diabetes — the old-age type — and peripheral neuropathy arising from that, I now had the indignities and hassles of having prostate problems. No need to go into details, suffice to say it can be embarrassing on occasions and a bloody nuisance all the time.

I was referred to a specialist and had to visit three times. He finally booked me into the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. I was then told to wait. 

And wait I did. Initially I was told the wait would be about eight to nine months. This blew out out to over a year because, after preparing myself for surgery, I was told on two occasions — once by phone and once on arrival at the hospital — that after organising my life in preparation for surgery there were “no beds today so we can’t help you.” It was third time lucky for me!

One Monday morning I was operated on. By the hospital’s bottom-line-driven rules, I should have been discharged the next day. But as I was experiencing problems with my blood sugar levels, I stayed another night. I was sent home on the Wednesday — my levels were still high, but as they needed my bed, it seems I could suffer from high blood sugar levels at home on my own.

Convalescing at home, I was brought to my knees by a lung infection which laid me low for a month. Royal Prince Alfred never accepted responsibility so I just wore it.

I was just starting to pick up the pieces of my normally hectic activist life when a mysterious but painful “thing” began in my stomach area.

It was off once again to see my trusty GP. This time I was referred to the Gastroenterology Unit at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. And so began seven months of frustration. I had blood tests, x-rays, ultrasounds, a CT scan and an endoscopy, and they finally found an umbilicus hernia. But this was not the source of the constant pain. In the quest for pain relief, I’ve tried several pills which have done nothing. 

I was referred to another specialist. This time it was cash payment — up front! “No bulk billing here mate,” I was told! Still no answers, so this specialist referred me back to my GP and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for further tests. One of of the tests I require is a colonoscopy. And this means a further wait of six months — at least, and in constant pain. Oh, what a system!

I am fully aware that there are others much worse off than me. The only difference is that, as a socialist, I get to write about it! 

I am 62 years old and I have a big axe to grind. We need free, quality healthcare and the right to be treated in a reasonable time. And we must demand healthcare to alleviate our pain and discomfort. I for one will not suffer in silence on a long, long waiting list. No one should have to. We all have the inalienable right to a good quality of life regardless of our age, race, sex or infirmity. My experience has brought into sharp relief what I always understood in theory: that a properly funded, free healthcare system for all is a necessity, not a luxury. 

The current Medicare system needs a total make-over. It is beyond the sick stage — it is dying. And now the Howard Government, with its cynically named “Fairer Medicare” plan, is preparing to kill the system off. If we don’t stop it, the result will be McHealth — a subsidiary of the horror that is the U.S. free enterprise system. In the U.S., if you do not have insurance or cannot pay then you are at the mercy of a woefully over-stretched “welfare” health system, or you just don’t get the care you need.

Since the introduction of the original Medibank scheme under the Whitlam Government, Medicare has been tinkered with, undermined, made “more workable and user-friendly,” by Liberal and Labor Governments alike. The result? Medicare is now unrecognisable as the universal health scheme that was meant to be for all of us — regardless of our circumstances — and is on the brink of officially becoming a two-tier system.

Bulk-billing — where the medical practitioner bills Medicare direct and the patient is not out of pocket — is a cornerstone of the system.  Doctors are split in their opinions about bulk-billing — some undermined it from day one. Many argue that this is nothing but the British “socialised system.” Other doctors believe it is good, as it lessens the administrative costs of billing patients. A few, like those in the Doctors Reform Society, supported the principle of access to healthcare for all. The rebate paid to doctors is woefully inadequate. If nothing is done to reverse the current decline in doctors who bulk-bill, the practice will be extinct in 14 years.

This is a rich country and the rich continue getting richer on the stolen land and the resources belonging to the traditional owners. The government’s priorities are all wrong. 

The Howard Government has been preparing to gut Medicare since it got into office. Now, in a massive shift in funding priorities, it is paying for its military adventures in Iraq and the Pacific with our health. The Government wants to introduce a system of co-payments for the majority. Health Care Card holders would be the only patients who could be bulk-billed. My experience with the current unravelling system is a taste of what is to come for the poor who will be sent to the back of the queue. Well, this taxpayer has had enough! We need a system that is fully government-funded. If there is not enough revenue for this, then how about making big business and the rich pay their share of tax for a change? 

Sounds good? Well my plan doesn’t stop there! Let’s organise in the unions, campaign in the community and take to the streets. All of us must fight to stop the mutilation of Medicare.

Let’s push to revamp the system by extending Medicare to cover all health costs, including hospital, dental, physiotherapy, optometry, prosthetics, and proven alternative medicines. Spending public money in this way would be massively popular. 

Let’s scrap the 30% private health insurance rebate and all subsidies to private health. Getting rid of this handout to big business will release much-needed funds for the public system. Many people have been corralled into private health insurance through government fear-mongering and the introduction of “Lifetime Health Cover.” Health funds, which I call “leech funds,” have continued to grow since former Liberal Prime Minister Fraser started tinkering in 1975. 

Let’s get rid of the “need” for private insurance — which enables those who can pay to jump the queue when faced with situations like my own. And let’s stop these profit-making institutions growing fat on their members’ payments and taxpayer subsidies.

But why stop at scrapping the private health insurance rebate? 

Get rid of the waiting lists now. It’s not hard. Let’s fully fund hospitals and immediately reopen all closed wards and beds. Health and hospital care in the rural and remote communities needs to be energetically revamped to meet the needs of patients. 

Let’s also boost funds to preventative programs and health education. Publicly fund research and implement some of the marvellous scientific gains being made in the treatment of diabetes, cancer and other conditions. 

How about nationalising hospitals, mental health facilities, disabilities services and aged care? Fund them properly and establish boards of workers and users to run them. 

Advances in technology mean that we are living longer. But why should poor and Indigenous Australians be expected to put up with pain, discomfort and embarrassment while waiting for treatment? The rich won’t cop it, and we won’t either!

Save and expand Medicare. We demand quality health care for all, not just the rich! 

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