Health Minister Peter Dutton has misled Australians with exaggerated claims about the unsustainability of the healthcare system, say economists and public health experts.
Contrary to claims by Mr Dutton, four health and economics experts interviewed by Fairfax Media said there was little evidence that Australia's healthcare costs were unsustainable.
And patient advocates warned the adoption of the National Commission of Audit's recommendations – including compulsory fees for doctor visits, emergency hospital charges and relegation of Medicare to only the needy – would bring about the end of universal healthcare.
"[Mr Dutton] is using scare tactics about unsustainability," said Stephen Leeder, emeritus professor of public health at the University of Sydney's Menzies Centre for Health Policy.
While healthcare costs are the fastest growing area of government spending and growing at a faster rate than national productivity, Professor Leeder said there were "many areas of inefficiency" that could be tackled before dismantling Medicare bulk billing. The minister and those in charge of the commission of audit were "too far removed from the front line" and were doing "accounting rather than health policy", he added.
Health economist Jeff Richardson said Mr Dutton was spreading a "carefully cultivated falsehood to say Medicare is unsustainable".
"Australia is not generous in terms of the amount of money we put into health through government," said Professor Richardson, foundation director of the Centre for Health Economics at Monash University.
Commonwealth health spending is currently about $65 billion a year or a little more than 4 per cent of GDP. It is forecast to rise to 7 per cent of GDP by 2050. But even if Australia reached that figure, the government would still be spending less on health as a proportion of GDP than currently spent by OECD countries such as Germany, the United States, Japan and Britain.
A modest rise in health spending was inevitable as Australians grew richer and older, said the chief economist of Bank of America Merrill Lynch Australia, Saul Eslake, adding that "to call it unsustainable is probably an exaggeration".
Far from having a health funding crisis, Australia had "one of the best health systems in the world", said Stephen Duckett, health program director at the Grattan Institute.
"We are less than the OECD average on health spending per capita," he said. "We're better than the OECD average on life expectancy. So we're actually in the healthcare system sweet spot."
But Mr Dutton said the current Medicare system was "unsustainable" and Australia's health spending was "heading to a point where it will become unmanageable".
"Health spending is not sustainable when it is above economic growth," he said, responding to the economists' criticisms.
"We have to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely – on services, not [an] endless[ly] growing bureaucracy, like it was under Labor.
"On top of current expenditure, we have an ageing of the population, medical technology, personalised medicines and genomics to pay for over coming decades. None of which has been accounted for in the current projections."
The story Experts sceptical about Health Minister Peter Dutton's health funding 'crisis' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.