What does a Tony Abbott government mean for doctors?

So Tony Abbott finally made it into office and we now face at least three years of coalition government. What does this mean for health and the doctors that make up the medical workforce? Peter Dutton may be the new Health Minister but, with his background, Abbott is bound to have a strong influence on policy.

For clues we can look to a couple of indicators to suggest how he will interact with doctors as a group - his historical track record and his proposals in the form of his election manifesto (arguably the former is more reliable that the latter given the ethereal nature of political promises).

So let's look at his track record. As Minister for Health from 2003 to 2007, Abbott oversaw Medicare reform designed to bolster bulk billing and reduce out-of-pocket expenses for private health services. Both could be seen as doctor friendly in that they help absorb some cost incurred by patients using medical services.

He also oversaw the crisis in Medical Indemnity Insurance swiftly making it more practical and affordable for doctors - another positive and a move that was roundly welcomed by the medical profession.

With regards to budget, his reign as health minister saw increases of grants to states for public hospitals of 7.4 per cent per year on average, so he has historically shown no particular desire to slash funding overall to health.

So what of his election promises?

In keeping with his general steady-as-she-goes style during his time in ministerial office, Abbott has downplayed the significance of health in his political posturing during the election campaign. He knows that health is a hot potato and probably a Labour strength.

Without revealing too much detail he has proposed spending plans worth $340m with an emphasis on redistribution of money from health "bureaucracy" to front-line services. However, he has pledged that there will be no drop in the number of doctors and nurses, plus a proposed doubling of funding over four years for doctors who train GP registrars - a solid investment in the future.

So it would seem that an Abbott government at least is likely to have a collaborative relationship with doctors.

More broadly, Abbott made no secret during his stint as Health Minister, that he is a Centralist at heart. Could it be that the Australian health system might be slated to go the way of the state medical boards with the hospital system moving entirely under federal control (we saw hints of this in Tasmania under Howard)? That would certainly be in keeping with his promise to reduce layers of bureaucracy.

Whatever you think of Abbott as a PM one could argue that having a former health minister in the job is a good thing in that he won’t require a period of “breaking in” and is unlikely to do anything drastically stupid. Still, anything is possible in politics.

Written by Dr John Bethell, Director of Wavelength International

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