Good riddance to the GP tax, but what lies ahead for medical research funding?

If the news coming out of Canbera tonight is accurate, the Federal Government has finally realized that their GP co-payment (really a tax given the way they intended to implement it) is actually what Rampaging Roy Slaven would call ‘a cup of hot fat with a hair in it’ as far as the electorate is concerned. It’s an economist’s zombie that has to be hacked to bits with shotguns and chainsaws every few years.

I can’t say I’m surprised, since along with pretty much every single person who knows anything about healthcare I am firmly of the opinion based on my firsthand working experience that it will severely impact the poor and vulnerable. If any part of the original vision of Medicare is worth preserving by all parties, it is bulkbilling of essential services. I don’t know how any astute politician could fail to understand that this is such a fundamental issue. It’s not like they weren’t warned.

Further complicating the issue is that the Government clearly felt it had been clever enough to sugar the pill by creating the Medical Research Future Fund to take the proceeds of the proposed tax. As recently as the end of last month the PM tried to encourage scientists to rise to the clumsily laid bait and convince his political opponents to support it where his party had so signally failed to do so by the usual means. Their tepid response to his speech clearly expressed the unease they felt about trying to build their research careers on funds raised directly from a source none of them would have chosen themselves. It doesn’t have to be research vs service provision, like it appears this Budget measure was claiming.

If the co-payment is indeed to be scrapped this places funding for the MRFF in jeopardy. It also raises significant concerns in my mind that the cuts made to NHMRC and CSIRO funding which were supposedly to be regained through the MRFF might be lost forever. The Government should move to clarify immediately what is going on with the future of medical research, or the brain drain overseas will begin in a highly productive economic and scientific endeavour in which Australia is a world leader. Academics and researchers have a lengthy and tenuous career pipeline which demands long-term planning. In a very short period of time, the current Federal government has made these pipelines very uncertain on a number of fronts, and this uncertainty has the makings of a generational disaster for medical research if it lasts very long.

While I welcome this news for the health of the most vulnerable in our community, there is a very long way to go before medical research emerges from the shadow it has cast.

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