PNHP - What Single Payer Advocates Can Learn From Australia

Australian Health Care — The Challenge of Reform in a Fragmented System

By Jane Hall, Ph.D.
The New England Journal of Medicine, August 6, 2015

The Australian health care system appears remarkably successful in delivering good health outcomes with reasonable cost control. Australians enjoy one of the longest life expectancies and a long healthy life expectancy, while costs as a proportion of the gross domestic product remain around the median among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Universal, tax-financed comprehensive health insurance, Australian Medicare, has been largely stable for three decades. Yet this performance has been achieved through, or despite, the interplay of public and private financing, public and private service provision, and a division of responsibilities between the federal and state governments. The main political parties clash over the role of government and whether national health insurance in its current form should continue.

Australian Medicare was established in 1984, after a period of tumultuous change. Australia has moved through numerous approaches to health care financing: private insurance with public subsidies (pre-1974), publicly financed national universal health insurance (Medibank, 1974–1976), predominantly private insurance with public subsidies (1976–1984), publicly financed national universal health insurance (Medicare, 1984–1996), publicly financed national universal health insurance with publicly subsidized private health insurance (1996–2013), and publicly financed national universal health insurance with means testing for private insurance subsidies (2013 to present). The rationale for government subsidies for private insurers alongside a public universal insurance scheme has never seemed clear; perhaps it is best seen as the compromise between the “strife of interests masquerading as a conflict of principles” that, according to health planner Sidney Sax, characterizes the Australian system. full text here

Comment:

By Don McCanne, MD

Probably the greatest problem with government financed and government administered health care systems is that, whenever conservatives gain control of the government, they attempt to privatize the systems, believing that markets work better than the government. Currently we are seeing such efforts in England, Canada and Australia.

As today’s message demonstrates, Australia serves as a prime example of how the health care systems suffer under continuing shifts in political ideology, with the most damage being done under conservative rule. As their government leadership changes periodically, “Australia has moved through numerous approaches to health care financing.” 

Jane Hall, the author of the NEJM article above, writes, “The rationale for government subsidies for private insurers alongside a public universal insurance scheme has never seemed clear; perhaps it is best seen as the compromise between the ‘strife of interests masquerading as a conflict of principles’ that, according to health planner Sidney Sax, characterizes the Australian system.”

Thus Australia has ended up with a highly fragmented system, though shifting political winds make it likely that they have not seen the last change. (More information is available in the white paper produced by the current conservative Australian government - link above.)

One interesting observation in the NEJM article (which is available for free at the link above) is the contrast between the public and private sectors in delivering health care. An example is that “42% of private deliveries (unadjusted for risk factors) are caesareans, versus 29% of public deliveries.” Their private sector seems to have much in common with our medical-industrial complex.

Many single payer supporters in the United States continue to advocate for a “public option” - a government-run insurance that competes with the private plans - as an incremental step towards a universal single payer system. Australia’s Medibank began as such a program in 1975. The Wikipedia chronicle (above) of the history of Medibank reveals that it has transformed into the largest, private, shareholder owned insurance company in their nation. Although our efforts at establishing a public option never got off the ground, before the effort was abandoned, the concept had already evolved away from an expansion of Medicare into simply another player in the private insurance market, government in name only.

Our health care politics have much in common with Australia, and we both have fragmented health systems as a result. Our public Medicare program has already been partially privatized by using overpayments of taxpayer dollars to lure Medicare beneficiaries into the private Medicare Advantage plans. The conservatives are not through in that they want to shift the entire program into the private sector by use of “premium support” vouchers. Of course, the expansion of private insurance plans also perpetuates fragmentation, though currently efforts are being made to convert the insurers into private oligopolies - perhaps the worst model of health care reform that we could have.

So who ultimately controls the ideological complexion of the government? The voters, of course. That is why it is crucial that we continue to educate the public on single payer - an improved Medicare for all - contrasting it with the more dysfunctional models, with our present system being a prime example of dysfunction. The people can have a much better health care system, but they are going to have to understand what that is so that they will demand it of our politicians.

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