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Ophthalmic profession reacts to shock election result

28/05/2019By Myles Hume
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After the Coalition’s surprising return to power, Australia’s eyecare sector has called on the government to honour its pledge to end the Medicare rebate freeze, and recommit to Indigenous eye health and foreign aid programs.

Following the return of the Morrison government, the sector has also signalled its intent to advocate for optometric items under the ongoing Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) Review, and push for greater scrutiny of private health insurers. 

Health featured prominently during the election. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) announced a bold health package, which included pledges for Indigenous eye health ($13 million) and a Pacific Avoidable Blindness and Vision Loss Fund ($32 million).

The Liberal Party of Australia itself announced a 10-year, $160 million Indigenous Health Research Fund, and $3.8 million over four years to fund the University of Melbourne’s Indigenous Eye Health (IEH) program.

Perhaps most notably, both parties announced commitments to end a freeze on Medicare rebates from July 1.

Ending the freeze

Optometry Australia (OA) CEO Ms Lyn Brodie said it was vital the incoming government maintained its commitment, with the optometric sector enduring a lengthy indexation freeze since 2012. This, combined with an unprecedented 5% reduction to all optometry rebates in 2015, has meant patient rebates for optometry MBS items are 5% lower than in 2012, while the costs of providing primary eyecare continue to increase.

“We hope that, in the short term, the incoming government will honour its commitments to reinstating indexation of Medicare rebates and progressing the review of the optometry component of the Medicare Benefits Schedule,” she told Insight.

“We are concerned that the Coalition hasn’t committed to reviewing and revising Medicare rebates to better align with the true cost of care, and we will be seeking their commitment to do so.”

Dr Peter Sumich, ASO
Dr Peter Sumich, ASO
“We will also be asking questions about the Senate Enquiry into private health care affordability and why so many of the recommendations were not implemented by the Ministerial Advisory Committee”
Peter Sumich, ASO

She added: “We [also] continue to prioritise a focus on securing fairer patient rebates under Medicare for optometric care – this is central to ensuring all Australians can access the eye care they need, and that our primary eyecare system is sustainable.”

The re-establishment of foreign eye health programs was also seen as a major priority area. The Fred Hollows Foundation and Vision 2020 Australia were vocal in their support for the ALP’s $32 million Pacific Island eye health program, which – if elected – would have helped train up to 600 health workers and cleared a backlog of cataract patients.

“For the last five years, Australia’s overseas aid has been cut, including support for avoidable blindness programs,” Fred Hollows Foundation CEO Mr Ian Wishart told Insight.

“We expect the government to put forward a plan to rebuild Australian aid to internationally acceptable levels. In the lead up to the next Budget we look forward to discussing these priority areas with the government.”

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Additionally, Wishart said it was necessary to address “the enormous challenge” of closing the gap in Indigenous eye health, which continues to lag at three times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians.

“We will be looking for a renewed commitment from the government to take decisive action in this area,” he said.

Vision 2020 Australia CEO Ms Judith Abbott said the government could improve Indigenous eye health through implementation of its sector-endorsed Strong Eyes, Strong Communities report, which maps out a five-year plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye health and vision.

The organisation would also continue to advocate for a second National Eye Health Survey in 2020 to expand its current evidence base, as well as improved access to assistive technology for the blind and vision impaired, and the reinstatement of funded eye health programs in the Indo-Pacific.

Cabinet consistency

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced his new ministry, with little changing for health. Mr Greg Hunt will continue as health minister, and Mr Ken Wyatt has been appointed as Minister for Indigenous Australians after previously serving as Indigenous Health Minister.

Speaking ahead of the announcement, Australian Society of Ophthalmologists Dr Peter Sumich said: “It remains to be seen whether Minister Hunt will retain the health portfolio because he is a noted star and policy problem-solver and could be taken off to plug another leak.”

AMA president Dr Tony Bartone added: “The AMA hopes that Prime Minister Scott Morrison keeps Greg Hunt as Health Minister and Ken Wyatt as Indigenous Health Minister. They are fully across their complex portfolios and the AMA has strong links with their offices and departments.”

The ASO and the AMA indicated the MBS Review needed further consultation with the medical profession, and would recommend aspects requiring further work.

Both orgainsations were also critical of private health insurers, with Bartone stating: “Reforms need to be bedded down, and the integrity of the private health system and its symbiotic balance with public hospitals, needs to be supported and maintained”.

Sumich said private health insurers were “increasingly troublesome”.

“They continue to minimise contributions to patients and create exclusions to maximise their profitability,” he said.

“We will be supporting a Productivity Commission review as was planned by Catherine King, the opposition health spokesperson. We will also be asking questions about the Senate Enquiry into private health care affordability and why so many of the recommendations were not implemented by the Ministerial Advisory Committee.”

Insight contacted RANZCO however; a spokesperson said a comment could not be provided in time for publication.

IMAGE CREDIT: AAP

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