“I am currently travelling the country listening carefully to GPs and patients and taking the opportunity to have frank and fearless discussions about constructive ways to protect Medicare for the long term.”
Seldom, if ever, has a new Health Minister started their incumbency with such a statement, but we live in unusual times, not least because Sussan Ley (“Lee”) hails from a rural electorate and is female. Indeed, she is just the second woman in the Abbott inner cabinet, joining Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
The reshuffle of that cabinet in late December 2014 saw the appointment of Ms Ley as a replacement for the much-criticised Peter Dutton, who kept the portfolio after being shadow minister before the Coalition’s 2013 victory.
Sussan Ley is the federal Member for the rural electorate of Farrar, named after William James Farrer, the father of the Australian wheat industry. Fortunately, as her patch covers 250,000 square kilometres of NSW, her skills include piloting aircraft (along with air traffic controlling, farming and tax accountancy).
The immense challenges of the portfolio, compounded by the contentious nature of health service delivery, was highlighted at the time her appointment was announced, with the AMA slamming the government’s handling of the Medicare funding issue.
Before long the Minister had cut short her holiday and returned to the political fray to announce that the $7.00 GP co-payment proposed in the now-shaky 2013-14 Budget was to be shelved.
By late January she had embarked on a round of ongoing consultations with GPs and their representative groups about “protecting Medicare for the long-term”.
She said no deadline had been placed on this process because the government wished to get a “fully representative view” from all relevant groups.
Citing Medicare figures showing that 72 per cent of services provided to non-concessional patients are currently bulk billed, the Minister said (in early February), “I am therefore continuing to discuss the importance of ensuring that those who have the means to do so should be able to make a modest contribution towards the cost of their care and treatment.”
According to the Minister, the government still believes the best way to do this is through a “modest $5 optional co-payment, with exclusions to protect concession card holders, veterans and children.”
At the time she took office, this proposal was also criticised by the AMA, with president Brian Owler slamming the ‘compromise’ to cut the GP rebate by $5.00.
As Minister Ley travels the rocky road of her new portfolio she may seek consolation from also being Minister for Sport: Australia won the Asian Cup soccer, may fare likewise in the ICC World Cup cricket, and soon we will be into the footy season.
No doubt the Minister will be hoping that sport, not the politics of health, will dominate the front pages.