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Kevin Rudd's health plan needs more work

By Rachel Siewert - posted Friday, 9 April 2010

In an effort to break the Senate deadlock on private health insurance legislation this year I moved an amendment to put an additional $145 million into mental health services - exactly the programs Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry says are needed if we are to tackle the biggest cause of death for under 45-year-olds.

It would have been a win-win outcome - a massive boost to mental health and potential circuit breaker that could have freed up $1.7 billion for public hospitals.

But the Government rejected the Greens' constructive pro-public health approach.


Let’s hope the Prime Minister doesn’t take the same take-it-or-leave-it approach to its health and hospital package.

The Australian Greens will be working in the Senate not to oppose or to give a blank cheque to the government’s proposals.

Kevin Rudd believes the way to start fixing the health system is by sorting out hospital finances but he misses the point. Isn't it better to keep people well in the first place? If we take care of people's wellbeing via the primary health system, look after their mental health, their dental health, and provide appropriate support for the ageing, then we won't need as many hospital beds. Yes we need to fix hospitals but in the context of the overall health system.

A single fundholder sounds attractive in trying to end the buck-passing of financial responsibilities for health outcomes. Removing a layer of bureaucracy from the health system also sounds attractive, as does encouraging local decision making; however, the government's plans to reform our hospitals leaves many questions unanswered and doesn't assure people that the government can improve the delivery of health services in Australia.

The Greens believe that preventive health is the best way to reduce costs in our nation’s hospitals and improve our health outcomes. The real problems faced by the health system lie in the management of chronic illness in an ageing society and the challenge of linking preventive and primary care to enable better management of illness in the community, not in the hospitals. But neither Kevin Rudd nor Tony Abbott had anything to say about these issues in the recent health debate.

Hospitals, specialists and shiny new machines may give a politician a photo opportunity, and something to show for their efforts while they’re in office, but they are also far more expensive and far less effective than the low technology interventions of primary care. The problem with politicising health is that it isn’t conducive to smart thinking. The preventive path delivers benefits further down the track - not something that works if your focus is on getting elected in the short term.


The National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission clearly identified a range of major problems that should be the focus of any proposed changes. These included a lack of access to key services, specifically highlighting mental health, dental and aged care services, which have once again been left out of the picture. The Rudd plan is a start at fixing some of the divided responsibilities for care, (between the federal government and the states), but what about the private-public and hospital-community sectors? His proposals say nothing about growing health service inequalities, notably affecting Indigenous peoples and those who live in rural and regional communities. And there’s a worrying lack of understanding on both sides of the political spectrum when it comes to the lack of continuity of health care that results in poor quality, high cost and largely ineffective forms of care for those with chronic illnesses.

The Greens have long championed equity in our health system, greater investment in public health - not private health insurance - and have called for accurate data monitoring to drive increased clinical and financial accountability. These are some of the areas we want to see addressed by this government.

Sadly, the Prime Minister’s plan has almost no details on how much of it will work. Take for example the local hospital networks: there’s an apparent disconnect between the 150 local hospital networks and primary health providers. It looks like primary care will be organised over much larger areas than those proposed by the Prime Minister’s local hospital networks. The proposed new model won’t work if the local hospital networks only include big, viable hospitals rather than the associated community and home care that many patients require. A better approach surely is local health networks, not networks of hospitals in isolation. These networks could be organised in support of, and include, primary health care.

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About the Author

Senator Rachel Siewert is the Australian Greens’ spokesperson on Community Services and the Environment: Natural Resource Management and Health.

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