Medical Research Future Fund; a preliminary check-up.

Where to start? From the Commission of Audit release in April, contemplations around the Abbott Government’s first federal budget have been fairly tumultuous. In the aftermath of the budget itself it’s no sure problem to see why.

We’re all in this together. Treasurer Joe Hockey minced no words in his assessment of the task ahead or in his radiant appraisal as to the stuff that we Australian’s are made of. “Prosperity is not a gift, it needs to be earned. So now it is our time to contribute. Now is our time to build… The time is now for everyone to contribute… Australia is a nation of lifters not leaners.”

Indeed almost everyone is due to get some form of shake up from this budget, some for the better but overwhelmingly the verdict is many of the worse in the short run.

Nevertheless the Treasurer and this Government have maintained that this is a long term budget geared to stop the house from burning down and to leave those who follow us with long term gains rather than the forecast disaster. “… But unless we fix the budget together we will leave the next generation a legacy of debt, not opportunity. As Australian’s we must not leave our children worse off.”

Although the criticism of this budget is mainly around its perceived slash and burn approach to government spending the Treasurer was very keen to emphasise the Governments plans to build and develop, particularly one unexpected project – the Medical Research and Future Fund.

This Fund, the Treasurer claimed would in six years amass $20 billion, the biggest medical endowment fund of its kind in the world. “As a result, it may be an Australian who discovers better treatments and even cures for dementia, Alzheimer’s, heart disease or cancer.”

“The Medical Research Future Fund will receive all the savings from the introduction of a $7 Medicare co‑contribution, modest changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and other responsible changes in this Health Budget, until the Fund reaches $20 billion.”

The Treasurers comments though do seem to fly in the face of his own Budget Overview released by the Treasury department which claims that $5 of the co-payment would go to research and $2 of the co-payment would go to the provider. This seems to imply that patients may be getting billed twice effectively for a number of services and those providers are making a profit out of this co-payment.

The co-payment has been a major source of criticism surrounding this fund. Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen said that while the Medical Research Future Fund was a great idea it shouldn’t be funded by the sick and vulnerable, “by those on low and middle incomes who need to see the doctor.”

Greens Senator Christine Milne labelled the entire scheme another of Tony Abbott’s “con jobs” and was deplored by the relatively low level of money that would be getting into the hands of researchers through the fund compared to the billions being put into it as detailed in the projected forward estimates.

“Tony Abbott is saying you can have cancer research down the track, but in the meantime I’m going to take money out of hospitals, I’m going to make the community pay more for the doctor and not only to going to the doctor, co-payments for filling out your prescriptions, co-payments for blood tests, co-payments for x-rays”.

The initial capital for the fund is being sourced within the Departments of Treasury and Health, and this inevitably means that many departments and initiatives are either going to be consolidated or scrapped. The documented changes include the cessation of certain discretionary grant programs such as “Australian Community Food Safety Campaign” and “Mental Health Better Access to Education and Training”, the cessation of the Tasmanian Nursing and Allied Health Scholarship and the abolition of the Australian National Preventative Health Agency.

No doubt when it comes to defending the tough choices in the budget, this Medical Research Future Fund will be among the forefront of reasons the government will call upon to convince the opposition in the Senate to pass this budget. For all its supposed benefit though this fund does not come without a great deal of pain in an already painful budget and is not without its unanswered questions. For example, what shall become of the research that is done with this money? Will such material or medical breakthroughs be sourced with public funds and then owned by private pharmaceutical concerns? And let’s not forget the history surrounding the last major Liberal Futures Fund pioneered by Peter Costello in 2006.

Time will tell but on the surface this fund at least seems to be far too little sugar to help the bitter pill that is this budget to go down.

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