Medicare: 40 years of looking after us

In 1974, then-social security minister in the Whitlam government, the late Bill Hayden, gave a speech at the Fitzroy Town Hall.

Mr Hayden made the bold - and true - statement, that if a society is to have economic justice, equal opportunity and continued prosperity, then it must have social security. What Bill Hayden would call, his government's driving force in its social policy decisions, the “belief in the supreme importance of human worth”.

The assertion was that social security was not charity, nor based on class distinction. Society security was, and remains, an investment. It is an investment the health of its citizens and an investment in the nation's future economic and social prosperity.

And one of the greatest investments in the Australian community is Medicare. This week we celebrate its 40th anniversary.

The concept of universal health care was not universally embraced.

The battle for Medibank - what we now know as Medicare - was fierce.

The Australian Medical Association set up a $2 million “fighting fund”, fearing doctors would become government employees (they wouldn't).

The General Practitioners Society encouraged members to distribute a template letter to patients that included the lines: “The control of our country has fallen into the hands of socialists . . . The fight that the GPS is spearheading is basically a fight for freedom - not just freedom for doctors - but freedom for you, for your children and for all people in the country.” Yikes!

Private hospitals and private health insurance funds joined the medical profession in the pushback. So many were stubbornly, vehemently and, at times, viciously opposed. But Bill Hayden ignored the attacks, which at times were personal and incredibly cruel, and won over those opposed to Medibank.

Bill counted that among his greatest achievements in politics. I think most of us would agree and be grateful for Bill Hayden's tenacity and his belief in the “supreme importance of human worth”.

Despite the Fraser government's attempt to dismantle Medibank, the Hawke government breathed life into it as Medicare.

It has become one of the most popular, most successful, most beloved and jealously guarded social policies in Australia.

It is gratifying to know that the National Disability Insurance Scheme stands alongside Medicare as a great social policy. During the recent review of the scheme, it emerged that Australians had that same sense of ownership of the NDIS. That same desire to support the vulnerable in our society.

The same understanding that fate could mean any one of us, or our loved ones, could need to call on the NDIS at any time.

The fact that Medicare belongs to all Australians is a source of enormous pride for us. Proud that we have a system that looks after any one of us when we need it. It doesn't discriminate. Whether you're a millionaire or unemployed, you are the same in the eyes of Medicare when you show your green card.

Though I have heard in the early days of the little green plastic card, there was more than one person who mixed it up with their American Express card. Medicare can do a lot, but it can't pay for your hotel or dinner.

And while we tend to associate Medicare with trips to the GP and bulk-billing, it led to care in public hospitals becoming free of charge, subsidised medicines that have significantly reduced costs for consumers, as well as subsidies for private medical services.

And Medicare keeps supporting the health of Australians.

In the year to date from July 2023, Medicare has processed more than 114 million services and paid out some $7 billion in benefits.

Health Minister Mark Butler said this week: “It was a Labor government that built Medicare and it is only a Labor Government who will continue to protect and strengthen Medicare.”

After nine years of neglect by Coalition governments, the Albanese Government last year confirmed its commitment to the scheme through a number of initiatives including the trebling of the bulk-billing incentive.

This will help more than five million children and their families, and more than seven million pensioners and concession card holders to see a bulk-billed GP.

It is the largest investment in bulk-billing - what has been called the beating heart of Medicare - in the scheme's four-decade history.

It is a move welcomed by doctors' groups and GPs who say it's a game changer that will help them maintain or even see a shift back to bulk-billing.

The Albanese Government is also making it our business to reunite Australians with $234 million in unclaimed Medicare benefits.

The orphaned funds are due to some people not updating their bank account details with Medicare. So far, we've paid back more than $20 million to Australians who realised it is simply a matter of going to the myGov website or the myGov app and entering their updated information.

And if you are due to get a new Medicare card this year, you'll receive a limited edition commemorative 40th anniversary design. Hopefully, it'll stop any mix-ups with the Amex. And, as the old American Express ads used to say, “never leave home without it”.

In fact, the new design will appear on your online version from February 9 - and that makes it virtually impossible to leave home without.

Bill Shorten is the Minister for the NDIS, Minister for Government Services and Federal Member for Maribyrnong.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 1 February 2024.