More than 100 people gathered in Canberra last Friday (19 October) for the funeral of the legendary health economist John Deeble.
They included many eminent senior health leaders and academics, including Dr Neal Blewett, Professor Jane Hall, Bob Douglas, Gordon Gregory, David Butt, Mark Cormack, colleagues from AHHA, AIHW, ANU, and the Commonwealth Department of Health, as well as family and friends.
Below is an account from Alison Verhoeven, a tribute that she delivered on behalf of Bill Hayden, and also tributes from John Menadue and Australian Health Ministers. This acknowledgement, John’s Story, was circulated at the service.
Alison Verhoeven writes:
The eulogies included one by Peter Reid who was his colleague and friend; I read a tribute from former Governor General Bill Hayden who for health reasons was unable to be at the funeral; then his step-daughter Sophie Beers and his daughter Karen Deeble spoke on behalf of his family.
Peter spoke particularly about John’s quiet but determined commitment to develop and implement a universal health system for Australia, and the lasting legacy that his work along with that of colleagues such as Dick Scotton and Neal Blewett has made to the health of all Australians.
He noted that a whole generation of Australians have only known a country where health care was available and accessible to all people, regardless of their income.
The Hon Bill Hayden’s tribute reflected similar sentiments, and particularly reflected on John’s persistence despite significant antagonism from the medical profession and health insurers.
John’s skills as a researcher, academic and policy maker were highlighted, but also his humanity, humility and most of all his kindness.
Karen’s final comments were that the world could do with more kindness, like her father had displayed throughout his life.
Bill Hayden writes:
I regret the present state of my health prevents me from attending the funeral service for my former colleague and friend, John Deeble.
John and I worked closely together to introduce Australia’s first universal health insurance scheme, Medibank, in the face of extraordinary hostility from the medical profession sustained over several years. Neal Blewett was to suffer the same hostility when he reintroduced it as Medicare.
You will recall the old blinkered quip, “if all the economists were laid end to end, they’d never reach a conclusion.” Well nothing was further from the truth in the case of John and his scholarly colleague Dick Scotton. They understood in a very practical sense that politicians have to deliver policies in the here and now.
John was prepared to take on the fight for universal health insurance. He believed in it as passionately as I did. John’s dedication, support and professional commitment to working to achieving the vision of Medibank, gave me the strength to sustain myself though the hostilities.
And today John and Dick’s conclusions on universal health insurance are now functional as national policy for the benefit of all Australians, and that is Medicare. A noble legacy for a towering figure in Australian economic policy.
John continued to be an enormous source of information and encouragement to me even after I retired from public life. I continued to call John regularly to discuss matters of shared economic and policy interest until the erosions of old age prevented us doing so. That was a sad day for me and sadder still was the news of his passing.
Thank you, John. Everyone in Australia today has the world’s best access to health services because of your efforts. I am grateful and indebted to you. I will miss you.
John Menadue writes:
Every Australian owes a great debt to John Deeble. Together with Dick Scotton he provided Gough Whitlam from 1967 onwards with the essential advice on how to establish a compulsory public insurance health program – Medicare.
The result was Gough Whitlam’s triumph in government on 7 August 1974, in a joint sitting of the parliament, to establish Medicare. The scheme started on 1 July 1975 when Medicare cards were issued to all Australians.
We now have one of the best health schemes in the world, although it clearly needs renovation. Without John Deeble it is hard to visualise how Medicare would have been possible.
In opposition Gough Whitlam was always exploring new policy options for Australia across a whole range of activities. He had naturally been attracted to the success of the British National Health Service but a similar health program in Australia at the federal level with the direct employment of doctors and nurses was really out of the question because of the conservative majority on the Australian High Court in the interpretation of the Constitution.
So Gough Whitlam welcomed the meeting with John Deeble and Dick Scotton in Melbourne because it offered a potential way around the constitutional barrier by offering a public health insurance scheme.
Gough Whitlam was also attracted by John Deeble and Dick Scotton because they were both health economists and understood the costs and economic consequences of a new health scheme. The Department of Health at that time, like the department still in Australia today, lacked competence in health economics.
John Deeble was an academic in Melbourne who had heart-felt concerns about the social and personal costs of poor health in the community. He was forthright about social injustice in health. He was also realistic about the messy world of politics and the compromises that Whitlam and later Hawke had to make.
After the establishment of Medicare by Whitlam and Hayden in 1975, and its wind back by the Fraser Government, it was reinstated by Hawke and Blewett in February 1984.
John Deeble continued to advise governments on health policy. He was a Commissioner of the Health Insurance Commission (Medicare) for 16 years. Because he was interested in health data and health economics he was the founding Director of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. From 1989 to 2005 he was Senior Fellow in Epidemiology and Adjunct Professor in Economics at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the ANU.
Until his health deteriorated, I spoke to him regularly and sought his advice. I recall two particular concerns and interests he had.
The first was that the growth of government-subsidised private health insurance was a looming threat to Medicare. But he did have pleasure in savouring the ever-growing public subsidy for PHI so that at an appropriate time it could be transferred, with minimal political risk, to other important parts of the health sector.
The second was that the ALP had made little contact with him in the last decade or so when he clearly still had so much more to offer. The failure to properly consult John Deeble explains, at least in part, why the ALP’s health policy has continued in the doldrums for so many years.
The country boy from Donald in Victoria has given great service to Australia. He designed, implemented and then defended Medicare for over 50 years.
• This tribute was first published at John Menadue’s site, Pearls & Irritations.
Australian Health Ministers:
This tribute was published in the COAG Health Council statement on 12 October.
On Monday 8 October 2018, Professor John Deeble AO passed away. Australian Health Ministers pay our respects to Professor Deeble and his family and acknowledge his unparalleled contribution to our health system.
A little over 50 years ago it was John, who with Dick Scotton, met with a future Prime Minister to propose a new universal health care system for the nation. As the principal architect of Medicare, John worked with successive governments through its early evolution guiding the policy framework that has given us a health system envied the world over. I
n addition to his role in creating our health system, in the early 1980s, John advocated strongly for an organisation to be established as a central collector of statistics on the health status and utilisation patterns of Australians. That idea became the Australian Institute of Health and John was appointed as the inaugural director of that organisation from 1985-1986.
Like Medicare itself, the AIH (now AIHW) has become an integral part of our health and social welfare system. John also held many roles in research and academic institutions and organisations, and despite having so prominent and incomparable role in shaping our health system, John was notoriously modest.
He was generous to a fault with his time for anyone who wanted to discuss or understand our health system and the economics of health care. More than his roles as researcher and educator, we will remember John for his persistence and commitment to build, evolve and maintain our cherished health system. Vale John Deeble.
• Previously at Croakey: Vale Professor John Deeble – “Father of Medicare”.