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Fairness, mateship, equality?

By Harry Throssell - posted Monday, 20 November 2006

Lovely words. Who could disagree with them? These are the “Australian values” Prime Minister John Howard lives by - he told the world on SBS Television on March 2. Fairness, mateship, and equality.

Old Tom is not convinced. For a start he’s not sure why John “Orwell” Howard, as he calls him, needs to repeat the same concept three times.

Tom is in his 70s, a pensioner, still working voluntarily after a lifetime of toil, but he’s not complaining. Except about the myth that Australia has a free public health service.


When he broke his arm a couple of years ago it turned out to be the start of Tom’s annus horribilis as far as medical needs were concerned. He took his arm to a large general hospital about 8 o’clock on a Saturday evening and was told it would take four hours to get an x-ray and a further two hours to see a doctor, leaving him stranded in the city in the middle of the night. Not enough staff rostered on. Tom didn’t wait.

After a painful night he and his useless limb were taken to a different public hospital where he received excellent treatment followed by very good after-care. One-one for the public health service. So far so good, nearly.

Tom always believed everyone should have the same access to health care regardless of cash in the bank, home address or position in society so on principle he’d never invested in health insurance. He’d been blessed with healthy genes and over the years was happy with skilled general practitioners who “bulk billed”.

But ...

Because of the broken arm he needed a bone density scan. Private laboratory job - $100. OK, that didn’t hurt much.

An itch turned out to be a skin cancer and he was advised it could be dangerous to wait in the long queue for public treatment. In passing it seems odd there are not enough public skin cancer practitioners in Queensland, one of the sunniest spots on the globe with a large white-skinned population. Excising Tom’s cancer cost nearly $2,000. Plus, six months later, a further $70 for the routine five-minute check. That’s $14 a minute, a pay rate of $840 an hour. Tom was pleased with the physical result but his bank balance limped out of the consulting room.


Then he had angina pains. Fortunately he was able to see a cardiologist in the public system immediately, to have an angiogram in hospital within six months to see what was happening in the heart, and then angioplasty - the insertion of a stent or metal coil in a heart artery - two months later.

Tom found public hospital treatment excellent and after-care very thorough and counted himself fortunate he had to wait only eight months. He wasn’t complaining, but you do wonder if people with heart problems should have to wait in a queue for eight months.

Next were abdominal pains. The GP sent him for a colonoscopy, an internal examination of his bowel plumbing. Fortunately there was no pathology, but the exercise added a further $200 to the bill.

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About the Author

Harry Throssell originally trained in social work in UK, taught at the University of Queensland for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, and since then has worked as a journalist. His blog Journospeak, can be found here.

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