Expect more palatable health policy

Health policies in next week’s budget are expected to be much more palatable than the government’s previous efforts, given a looming federal election.

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It’s unlikely there will be anything near as hideous as the deeply unpopular GP co-payment, which the Abbott government was forced to declare “dead, buried and cremated” months later.

Or the $57 billion reduction in hospital funding the government was forced to partially retreat from, despite maintaining it was not a cut.

So far, the 2016/17 budget will include an extra $2.9 billion for hospitals agreed to at the last Council of Australian Governments meeting, and $5 billion for the new Child and Adult Public Dental Scheme announced last week.

Former federal health department boss Stephen Duckett, now the Grattan Institute’s health program director, says the government is unlikely to leave itself open to potential scare campaigns ahead of an election.

But it will have to walk a fine line between saving and spending measures, given its previous rhetoric on the budget deficit, he says.

KEY AREAS TO LOOK OUT FOR:

* PATHOLOGY

The government left itself vulnerable to another co-payment scare campaign when it announced in its mid-year budget update that incentive payments for pathologists to bulk-bill patients would be scrapped.

Dr Duckett believes there’s big money to be saved in pathology and the government should go harder on cuts to the sector but to do it carefully, in a way that protects patients from threats of a $30 co-payment for tests such as pap smears.

Either way, he says the government needs to tackle its pathology policy in this budget: “They’ve either got to lay it to bed or they’ve got to put something else in place”.

* PBS COPAYMENT

Another left-over from the 2014/15 budget, Health Minister Sussan Ley conceded almost a year ago she wouldn’t be able to get this measure through the Senate.

But the proposal to increase the co-payment for prescription medicines by $5, or 80 cents for concession patients, has remained on the table for the past year as the government tries to find another way to save $1.3 billion.

* PRIVATE HEALTH INSURANCE

Ms Ley has been talking tough on private health insurance lately and repeatedly telling voters to be patient in the face of rising premiums and junk policies, insisting changes are on the way.

Some expect there will be a response to the government’s review into the sector in the budget.