Carol Bennett, CEO of the Consumers Health Forum, writes:
I would describe last night’s health Budget lock-up as a very quiet gathering which is probably a good indication of general approval by the sector (no easy feat to achieve!)
Quite rightly, there has been almost universal approval for the additional $1.5 billion investment in mental health services in the 2011-12 Budget last night.
Likewise, it would be hard to argue that the further $475 million for regional health infrastructure, on top of the $1.3 billion already spent, is not long overdue. Anyone who has had the misfortune to end up in one of our smaller regional hospitals of late will have noted how run-down and under-resourced they are, and that is no reflection on the valiant work and commitment of the medical and support staff working there.
Others will write in more detail about the long overdue increase in spending on mental health, but – as someone who has previously worked in this sector – I would like to particularly commend the money being spent for better assessment and coordination of mental health services, the new e-mental health portal, more primary care and innovative services and the National Commission to ensure accountability for the money.
Greater investment for expansion of the ground-breaking headspace and EPPIC early psychosis intervention programs are also most welcome.
Dental health is still a major area that needs to be tackled. The potential cost and complexity of reform in this area has frightened successive Governments over the years. The new Dental Health Advisory Council, (on which consumers will need to be well represented) needs to focus on and explain to sceptical Governments, the costs that poor dental health and poor dental education impose on the health sector in general, not forgetting the costs to employment participation and our civil society.
To focus on one area of disappointment, in an otherwise good health budget outcome, the Government has funded just one of the seven deferred items – Prevenar3, the pneumococcal vaccine booster – recommended for listing on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) by the expert Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC). It seems particularly ironic that while mental health has been the focus of this Budget, a medication that could deliver significant benefit to people with schizophrenia remains in limbo.
We are now seeing the start of a log-jam of important new medicines awaiting Cabinet approval while millions are being spent providing set-top boxes for pensioners, most of whom would likely prefer to have the latest and most effective medicines for their ailments.
Another raft of PBAC recommendations will go Federal Cabinet in June, and indications are that many, if not all, of these will be delayed.
The Government should realise that this is a running political sore that will not go away. Medicines delayed are medicines denied and we have yet to hear a convincing argument as to why the successful and rigorous PBAC processes have been sidelined to achieve bottom line savings.
This health Budget provides some additional bonuses such as the continued funding for the Bowel Cancer Screening Program ($138m over 4 years) and increased availability and affordability of MRI services.
Overall, the health sector and Australian consumers can breathe a collective sigh of relief that this Budget hasn’t produced the much anticipated pain – especially increased copayments that could have been on the table.
For CHF’s part, we will continue to work through the detail of the new measures and to advocate for consumer access to necessary medicines through a process that isn’t mired by political interference.