Health decisions must benefit sick people, not politicians
AS a membership-driven organisation, the Consumers’ Health Forum of Australia (CHF) prides itself on listening and responding to the needs of consumers. But what happens when consumers do not agree, or when the needs of some consumers appear to conflict with the needs of others?
Take the recent decision of the federal Government to take over the Mersey Hospital in Devonport, Tasmania. This decision was clearly welcomed by many of the people living in Devonport. News reports showed people lining the street to welcome the Prime Minister when he visited the town after making the announcement.
The federal Government argues that it has listened and responded to consumers’ needs in overriding the state’s decision to scale down the services offered by the hospital.
On the other hand, this decision was made after a comprehensive consultation process, involving consumers as well as other health stakeholders. Furthermore, experts warned that continuing to provide emergency and intensive care facilities at the Mersey — even with the federal Government’s injection of funds — would result in Devonport residents receiving sub-standard care. Clearly this is not in the best interests of consumers in the area.
So how do we make sense of these conflicting views, and ensure that decisions made about health funding deliver the best outcomes for consumers? After all, whether funding for health services comes from governments via our taxes, directly from consumers via out-of-pocket payments or indirectly via private health insurance, ultimately consumers pay for all health services.
Asking consumers about whether resources should go to one health service, without considering overall resource allocation, is like asking someone to manage their family’s grocery budget without telling them what their total household’s disposable income is and what their other expenses are.
While it may seem like politicians are listening to the community when election promises are made, pork-barrelling is no substitute for real consultation.
All too often during election campaigns the interests of some groups of consumers are given a higher priority due to their perceived influence over the election outcome. To rephrase George Orwell’s famous line, when it comes to election campaigns some consumers are definitely more equal than others.
So how do we address this issue, as the election gets closer, to make sure that election commitments are made in the best interests of consumers, not just as a short-term way of buying votes?
The key is for consumers to have input into decisions being made about health resourcing, at both a national and local level. This ensures the interests of consumers overall can be considered when these decisions are made, along with those of specific groups of consumers and local communities.
Unfortunately, however, there is no requirement for political parties to consult with nonpartisan consumer representatives when making election campaign decisions.
However, as consumers we can be vigilant in scrutinising the promises of all political parties and judging them against whether or not they represent a good use of resources.
As payers, we have both a right and a strong incentive to ensure that health resources are used to deliver health outcomes for consumers, and not simply votes for politicians. Mitch Messer is chair of the Consumers’ Health Forum of Australia.