Free blood tests: La­bor raises health pres­sure

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - SI­MON BEN­SON NA­TIONAL AF­FAIRS ED­I­TOR

Bill Shorten will promise to fund $200 mil­lion worth of free blood tests for cancer patients and older Aus­tralians as he moves to reignite the bit­ter clash over pathol­ogy bulk billing that erupted dur­ing the 2016 La­bor Medi­care scare cam­paign.

The Op­po­si­tion Leader will to­day con­firm an ex­ten­sion to his sig­na­ture $2.3 bil­lion cancer care pack­age af­ter be­ing forced to deny it was un­der­funded by $5.8bn.

La­bor will promise to guar­an­tee three mil­lion free pathol­ogy tests a year needed by cancer patients. The pack­age will also fund 20 mil­lion pathol­ogy tests used by older Aus­tralians each year.

Larger pathol­ogy busi­nesses have warned they need more tax­payer funds to en­sure bulk billing is main­tained for blood tests.

Mr Shorten will make La­bor’s fifth health an­nounce­ment since the elec­tion was called last Thurs­day, in a bid to con­fine the con­test to health and cancer fund­ing.

Scott Morrison yes­ter­day ac­cused Mr Shorten of be­ing in­ca­pable of man­ag­ing money af­ter ques­tions over the cost­ings of La­bor’s cancer care pack­age.

Mr Shorten re­jected the claims and will to­day dou­ble down on the pol­icy by an­nounc­ing its ex­pan­sion. He will also re­vive La­bor’s dis­cred­ited 2016 elec­tion scare cam­paign over Medi­care by ac­cus­ing the Coali­tion of pre­sid­ing over “sav­age cuts”. A se­nior La­bor source said last night the ALP had suc­ceeded in drag­ging the Coali­tion into its pre­ferred ter­ri­tory of health, hos­pi­tals and Medi­care.

Dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion cam­paign, the Coali­tion was forced into a hasty re­treat af­ter La­bor sided with large pathol­ogy labs, in­clud­ing those run by multi­na­tional health­care providers, to op­pose the re­moval of $650m in bulk-billing in­cen­tives.

Mr Shorten was ac­cused of sid­ing with the multi­na­tional com­pa­nies af­ter it was re­vealed pathol­ogy gi­ant Sonic Health­care had do­nated to the La­bor elec­tion cam­paign.

The gov­ern­ment ditched the bulk-billing plan, and in the 2017 bud­get pledged more funds to keep the in­cen­tive pay­ments in or­der to re­tain high lev­els of bulk billing on pathol­ogy ser­vices.

Mr Shorten, de­spite yes­ter­day hav­ing to de­fend ques­tions over the cost­ings of La­bor’s cancer care pack­age, ap­peared set to re­turn to the bat­tle­ground that al­most cost Mal­colm Turn­bull the 2016 elec­tion. “A Shorten La­bor gov­ern­ment will en­sure vi­tal blood tests are pro­tected from Scott Morrison’s health cuts — in­vest­ing $200m to keep pathol­ogy tests free for older Aus­tralians and Aus­tralians with cancer,” Mr Shorten will say to­day.

“Blood tests are the front­line of treat­ment for cancer and se­ri­ous dis­eases. They are crit­i­cal not only for di­ag­no­sis, but to track whether a treat­ment is work­ing or not.

“Bulk billing for blood tests is at break­ing point — cancer patients will ei­ther have to pay, or there will be a re­duc­tion in ser­vices.”

La­bor health spokes­woman Cather­ine King yes­ter­day ac­cused Health Min­is­ter Greg Hunt, who was campaigning at a cancer re­search cen­tre in Mel­bourne, of a “des­per­ate at­tempt to dis­credit our plan”.

Health Depart­ment anal­y­sis of cancer-re­lated Medi­care items sug­gests that if La­bor promised to fund all ex­ist­ing cancer care in­clud­ing di­ag­nos­tic, con­sul­ta­tion and treat­ment over the next four years, it would end up $5.8bn short. Ms King said she had writ­ten to Health Depart­ment sec­re­tary Glenys Beauchamp who con­firmed the depart­ment had not costed La­bor’s pol­icy, de­spite hav­ing pro­vided anal­y­sis to the min­is­ter’s of­fice based on what La­bor had sug­gested its pol­icy would be.

The Prime Min­is­ter used the ap­par­ent dis­crep­ancy in La­bor’s cost­ings to sug­gest Mr Shorten could not be trusted to man­age money. “If you can’t man­age money you can’t run the coun­try; you can’t run a health sys­tem,” Mr Morrison said.

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