KEVIN Rudd will underline his re-election campaign theme of health in the federal budget by slashing the cost of some prescription medicines and announcing new Medicare payments for practice nurses.
Primary care will be a big focus in Tuesday's budget, in particular delivering better financial support for nurses taking on new responsibilities to ease the doctor shortage.
But the razor gang has taken a close look at the health budget, with the government looking for up to $2 billion in savings from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, which subsidises the cost
of drugs for thousands of Australians. Health Minister Nicola Roxon has previously confirmed the government is looking at savings from the $7.7bn PBS, which is predicted to blow out further as the population ages.
Because drug companies would be asked to bear the cost of the government's PBS reform, popular blood pressure, cholesterol-lowering and reflux drugs could become cheaper than the current $33.30 payment per script.
Tuesday's budget will also outline how the government intends to fund an additional $5bn in health spending recently announced under reform plans to become the majority funder for the nation's hospitals, and cut waiting times for emergency department care and elective surgery.
Wayne Swan said yesterday that rising health costs were difficult to contain against the backdrop of his austerity measures to get the budget back to surplus.
"In many ways, this is the hardest budget yet -- funding our health reforms and other commitments without adding a cent to the deficit," the Treasurer said.
While Mr Swan is promising a "no-frills" budget, the government is expected to pump an extra $2bn into health to boost out-of-hospital services and expand the work nurses perform. Those measures are on top of the $5bn announced under the Council of Australian Governments deal.
Australian General Practice Network chairman Emil Djakic said yesterday the budget was the moment to deal with health reform funding gaps left over from last month's COAG deal. "COAG delivered a lot of money for hospitals, but what the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission called for, what the government has continued to say they want, is a health system built around wellness, not illness, one based in general practice," Dr Djakic said.
"We have not yet seen the funding to deliver this, and without it the government's plans will come to nothing and Australia's opportunity to have a world-class health system, where all Australians get the best standards of care, will be lost."
Australian Nurses Federation federal secretary Ged Kearney said the missing piece in the reform agenda was a long-term strategy to tackle a shortage of nurses and aged-care workers.
"From 2003 to 2007, the numbers of aged-care residents increased by 15,000 while the number of nurses actually declined by 4000," she said. "The system increasingly relies on hardworking assistants in nursing and personal care assistants to work beyond the scope of their education and skill."
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