02 July, 2010

Health reform: a good place to start is to remove homeopathy

Australia has one of the finest health care models in the world, yet it is under constant reforms and tweaks that aren’t always in the patients’ best interests.

Every citizen and resident is entitled to the very best in health care at any public hospital; a universal health care.  Complimenting the public system are the private hospitals, which cater for those who don’t need emergency surgery or care, or want a “better” standard of care, or wish to avoid being on a waiting list for non-essential or minor surgery, or even prefer to use their health insurance than use the tax-payer funded public system.

The use of the private hospital system is made more affordable by “reforms” introduced by the Howard Liberal-National government by giving a tax deduction of 30% for private health insurance.  It was one piece of many of the Howard government’s middle class welfare program.  When the Rudd Labor party swept into power (even unseating Howard, something that is almost unheard of) the middle class welfare didn’t end.  The 30% tax deduction for private health cover remained to anyone who had it.  In fact, the extra Medicare Levy imposed on the highest income earners would also be reduced to the same percentage Medicare Levy as the lowest income earners as a reward for having private health insurance.

The health insurance industry is also a strange beast.  Providers are almost exclusively Not-For-Profit Mutual Funds.  Further, their rates are capped and each year negotiate with the Federal Health Minister through the department on any increase in rates for services.  The arguments by the Funds are the same; without an increase the Funds won’t be able to provide the services resulting in a loss of membership and thus more pressure on the public health system.  The government’s position is almost always the same, claiming that most Funds are gouging their members for services they don’t need or won’t use.

This raises an interesting point.  Should these Funds be free to offer a range of products for a discerning public can pick and choose from, or should they be restricted to services that are only covered by Medicare?  (Currently dental is not covered by Medicare, but each State has a system for dental subsidy for those least able to afford dental care.  A plan exists to bring Dentistry into Medicare.)

Before the Coroner of Western Australia, Alistair Hope, is a case that raises very serious issues for the Health Fund industry.  The death of Penelope Dingle highlights the damage homeopaths can do in a self-regulated industry.  Yet it is almost impossible to be a member of a Fund without having the option of at least one “alternative medicine” in the bundle.

While Mr Hope has yet to hand down a finding, it is time for the Federal Health Department to refuse Health Funds any increase in fees until they remove any unproven medicine from their packages; naturopathy, homeopathy, in short, woo.

This isn’t the first time a Coroner has had to deal with the effects of homeopathy, but hopefully it will be the last.  As long as Health Funds package “alternative medicines” with basic cover, or even Ancillary cover, it legitimises the woo.  If any citizen or resident wants to have homeopathy or any other unproven medicine included in their insurance, then why should it be subsidised 30%?  If such treatments did work, we wouldn’t have a regular stream of Coroner’s Reports condemning the practice and practitioners, nor would we have families begging for justice.

This is a challenge for the new Gillard Government and for Health Minister Nicola Roxon in particular; stop the Health Funds from bundling woo into their packages.  The next time the Funds cry “we need to increase our premiums” the government should stand firm and suggest the Funds could save money if woo wasn’t automatically bundled with services that are legitimate, and remove the 30% refund for any service that cannot prove its efficacy.

That should save Medicare enough money to finally include dental services.

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