Preventive care and mental health in the election spotlight

Doug Hendrie

2/05/2019 4:35:49 PM

Catherine King and Greg Hunt outlined rival visions for the future of Australia’s healthcare at a National Press Club debate.

Catherine King and Greg Hunt
Catherine King and Greg Hunt have outlined their visions for Australia’s healthcare. (Images: Darren England and Alex Murray)

At a lively and wide-ranging National Press Club debate with Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt in Canberra, Shadow Health Minister Catherine King said a Labor Government would use its proposed Australian Health Care Commission to look at how to better integrate mental and primary care.
Ms King touted her party’s $2.3 billion cancer care policy, $2.4 billion pensioner dental plan and $2.8 billion plan to restore commonwealth–state public hospital funding to 50:50.
‘Voters complain there isn’t much difference between the major parties. I’m not sure that’s ever really true, and it’s certainly not at this election,’ she said.
The move comes a day after the Opposition pledged $115 million in preventive health and healthy living, centring on a National Obesity Strategy and new anti-smoking pushes.
Minister Hunt announced his Government would allow older patients to have consultations with their GP by phone, email or text, in what represents an expansion of current trials in telehealth.   
He said the Government had listed every medication recommended by an expert committee on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).
Minister Hunt added he believes Australia needs a strong economy to fund good healthcare, highlighting the fact the Government had lifted bulk-billing rates to 86% and put $550 million into a rural health strategy, as well as doubling funding to medical research. He also discussed plans to expand the network of headspace mental health facilities, and a new network of adult mental health facilities.
Ms King talked about Labor’s creation of Medicare and the PBS.
‘If you care about healthcare, there really is no choice at all,’ she said.
‘One of the biggest problems is the fragmentation of the system.
‘We haven’t had a significant investment in the way primary care manages mental health. That’s why [Labor] will have an Australian Health Care Commission, to look at how to get better investment and integration in primary health care.’
Ms King also promised that, if Labor wins the coming election, she would talk with the RACGP and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) about what is needed to reform primary healthcare.
‘The Government has given up on reform,’ she said. ‘They have done some real damage. We can’t repair all that immediately.’
Ms King said that Labor, in conjunction with the RACGP and the AMA, had forced the Government to back down on the ‘GP tax,’ referring to the proposed GP co-payment.  
In response to a question over Minister Hunt’s reversal of a plan to allow patients to collect two months’ worth of scripts – rather than just one – after pressure from the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, he said there are different views in the medical field over the proposal and that he would ‘consider and consult’.
Ms King said the existing Community Pharmacy Agreements are the way to negotiate with the community pharmacy and wholesaler sector.
Both leaders took a strong stance against vaping, describing its popularity among American youth as a ‘public health disaster’ backed by the tobacco lobby.
Minister Hunt said represents ‘a ramp on, rather than a path off, smoking,’ while Ms King said tobacco companies are trying to use vaping to expand their market and it is not something Australia ‘should countenance’.
Asked about standing up against powerful interest groups, Minister Hunt described a ‘disagreement’ with the Pharmacy Guild over the up-scheduling of codeine.
‘The Guild had one view, others had another,’ he said.
‘There was a very strong campaign against the Government approach. We made that decision. It helped save lives and protect lives, and that was the right thing to do.
‘We see the opioid crisis and will not, on our watch, allow that to occur.’
Ms King gave the example of Labor’s policy to cap private health insurance premium increases to 2% per year, which she said has not been popular with the industry.
A divide opened up on food reformulation. Minister Hunt is in favour of voluntary commitments, while Ms King flagged mandatory reformulation as a future possibility.
‘To actually change [fats, salts and sugar amounts in food], you need to move to mandatory,’ she said.
Mr Hunt said the Government had won the support of the Australian Beverages Council to reduce sugar in soft drinks by 20% on ‘a cooperative and voluntary basis’.

Catherine King debate Greg Hunt primary health

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Vanessa Sellick   5/05/2019 3:59:59 PM

We need our politicians to really stand by their claim that they have a focus on youth mental health.
Neither party has committed to ensuring warning labels are on the outside of the packaging of medications that cause potentially severe neuropsychiatric side effects such as depression and suicidal thoughts and actions.
Prevention of Mental Health injuries caused by medication needs to be a priority. I believe that the Poisons Standard in Australia requires updating to include a Cautionary Advisory Label (CAL) for medicines that have severe neuropsychiatric side effects. Warnings and education of these severe side effects will allow monitoring, early intervention and will decrease the incidence of medication induced mental health injuries. It’s a financially responsible decision which would ease the pressure on mental health services in Australia.