Saturday, May 17, 2008


Details of health cuts still to be spelt out

Mark Metherell, smh

May 17, 2008

THREE days after the budget revealed there would be $503 million of unspecified cuts to the health budget, the Government has kept silent on where the axe will fall.

The cuts were signalled in the budget papers under the title "responsible economic management" and were described as "adjusting the funding for specific health programs" with total savings of $503.7 million over five years.

By late yesterday the office of the Minister for Health, Nicola Roxon, had detailed less than half of the savings - a total of $246.8 million. A spokesman said the big cuts had been detailed, but numerous smaller items were still to be announced.

It is understood the Health Department came under intense pressure from the Finance Department to cut a swathe through programs where spending had failed to match original estimates.

The savings will offset the Government's promise to establish a $10 billion health infrastructure fund, its $600 million elective surgery campaign, and the planned 31 GP super clinics, which will cost $275 million.

Despite the big promises, health spending will struggle to keep pace with inflation, according to the budget figures, which show total spending will rise from $44.4 billion to $46 billion.

The cuts revealed by Ms Roxon's office yesterday show that areas Labor has identified as priorities have been hit by the Health Department's failure to spend the money as sought by the previous government.

The biggest hit has been to the chronically underfunded area of mental health nursing, which has yielded "savings" of $188 million over four years.

The official explanation is that due to the "limited available workforce", few took up the incentives program for mental health nurses to work in the community.

The Government has left $49.5 million funding for future needs and says targets for the demand-driven program will not be lowered.

Other losers were infrastructure training and support for general practitioners in primary and co-ordinated care, another Labor priority. This would generate cuts of $20 million over four years. A separate primary care fund for one-off projects will save $11.5 million.

A pathology project for remote areas is to lose $12 million in unused funds because "relevant services are now funded under Medicare", and a $10.5 million electronic health project is to be scrapped.

Ms Roxon's office said the Government had adjusted funding for several health programs that had a history of lower than expected spending "by aligning future funding more closely with anticipated demand".

The president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Rosanna Capolingua, said spending was already "playing catch-up".

"You have to ask how they are going to screw down the real cost of delivering proper care."