Your Health Fund and Natural Therapies

Like a lot of Australians, I was really disappointed at Andrew Denton’s behaviour towards Charlie Goldsmith the other night on Interview.  I’ve never seen Andrew be so close-minded, judgemental and disrespectful towards someone before.  This interview was conveniently released during Natural Medicine Week.  I do have to wonder whether it was a publicity stunt to discredit natural therapies in the same week as we should be celebrating our successes and importance to the Australian public.

Unfortunately, this level of disrespect towards natural medicine practitioners is quite normal.  I can’t tell you how many clients I have had whose conventional medicine practitioners have told them not to see me for reasons from I’m a charlatan to it’s placebo to you’re wasting your money.  Yet these clients still come to see me. If these claims were true, why is it that over 68% of Australians seek out natural therapies each year?

Perhaps you’ve have heard over the last 12 months about health funds planning to scrap rebates for 12 natural therapies.  The basis for this really is the NHMRC review which states there is no evidence for supporting these therapies. You may be interested to know that this review is currently before the Commonwealth Ombudsman with a complaint of scientific fraud.  Your taxpayer dollars paid for this review.

You may have also heard Tanya Plibersek recently talking about cutting the so-called “Tampon Tax” and recovering this money by adding GST to natural therapies that are currently GST exempt.  Given that 62% of all visits to complementary therapists are made by women, this effectively will just cost women more money.

Let’s play this out – a box of tampons costs around $5, and you pay about 50c GST on this, and you use a box a month.  A visit to a complementary medicine therapist costs $140 and you go once a month.  This will cost you $14 in GST, costing you $13.50 more in a month.

In addition, because you can’t get your $20 back from your health fund provider, this ends up costing you $33.50 more a month.  Even if we assumed that 62% of all women that buy tampons visit complementary and alternative medicine therapists, it’s still significantly more money that women are being expected to pay.  At 100 women, this would save $500, and cost $2,077, a net loss of $1,577.  It doesn’t make sense when you do the maths, does it?

The health funds have said that reducing the rebates will reduce the premiums that consumers have to pay.  This does not make logical sense when less than 1% of all money paid out by health funds is for complementary and alternative medicine therapies.  Is your health fund really going to reduce your premium by 1% with this proposal?  If so, what difference is this going to make to your costs?  Very little.  Reducing a $400 premium by 1% makes it $396.  When was the last time your health fund reduced your premium? Just one $20 rebate taken away is 5 times that amount.  Secondly, a 1% reduction is nothing when you consider that premiums typically rise by 3.5% at minimum per year.

If your policy currently covers these therapies, and the cost of your premium does not significantly reduce, but your costs significantly increase, then the only person that loses from this proposal is you as the consumer.  Research shows that 68.9% of all Australians saw a Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) practitioner at least once last year, and that there were 69.2 million visits to CAM practitioners in a year.  Against a population of 24 million, that means that on average, every Australian would visit a CAM practitioner nearly 3 times a year.  When you assess this against 68.9% of the population that do see CAM practitioners, these people each have at least 4 visits a year.

As I said, the current official opinion is that there is no evidence of efficacy for the 12 therapies at risk.  Yes, more research needs to be done.  Yes, qualifications are important (maybe not in Charlie’s case!).  Yes, it is important to spend our taxpayer dollars in the right manner.  Does it mean there’s no evidence – no.  Remember that evidence is not just very expensive research, but also clinical experience.  The clinical experience of nearly 40,000 natural therapists has not been studied.  How do we get more studies and research?  Someone has to pay for it.  Charlie Goldsmith mentioned during his interview that one study on him is costing USD$150,000.

The latest budget shows over $275 million will be spent over the next 4 years on health and medical research.  How much of this is allocated to research for natural therapies?  $0.  That’s right – not one dollar.  In addition to claiming there is no evidence, despite the fact that 2/3 of the country use natural therapies, the government has chosen not to allocate $1 of your taxpayer money towards research in natural therapies.  How do we get more evidence without the funds to pay for this evidence?

Across Australia, there are 36,441 people employed across 28,000 small businesses in natural medicine.  These people are seeing 69 million people a year.  Complementary medicines generate $4.7 billion in revenue every year and this grows year-on-year.  These figures would suggest that there is plenty of evidence in clinical experience.  Perhaps the government could invest more money in research in this field?  The health funds could also invest some of their profit in more research.

If there is no evidence and no benefit, why are so many people spending their hard-earned dollars on alternative treatments?  Certainly not because they are being duped or are poorly educated.  In fact, research shows that the use of CAM therapies is highest amongst those with university degrees and reduces in line with education levels.  It could be argued that this is due to economic means. Could it just be because these therapies actually help?  I am certainly not suggesting that these therapies are used in place of conventional medicine – in fact they often work exceptionally well in conjunction with conventional medicine.  Therefore, I propose that more research into the combined benefit of conventional and CAM medicine would be very beneficial.

Has the government, or any of the health funds, done any research into the preventive nature of complementary and alternative medicines?  We know the answer to this will be no based on the budget released this month, as mentioned above.  Removing these rebates and taxing natural therapists, and by default, punishing the hard-working consumer in the end, may well have an unintended negative outcome.

It may well just put more strain on an already overburdened health care system.  Can the government or the health of Australians really cope with an increased burden in this regard? Conventional medicine focuses very much on fixing that which is already broken, as opposed to preventing that break in the first place.

What if we can prevent so many people from suffering from illness in the first place?  Is helping with stress, pain, diet and lifestyle really such a bad thing?  Surely prevention is better than cure?  Has the government done any study into the amount of money saved and the burden on hospitals eased by the use of preventive medicine?  Do they have a plan on how they intend to manage an increased burden on the hospitals by making it so costly to the consumer to look after their health and wellness before it becomes a medical emergency or a chronic illness?

Does the government really intend to continue with the misguided belief that 68% of the population, weighted towards university educated people, visiting CAM practitioners 4 or more times a year, are not capable of making informed decisions in relation to their health and wellness needs?  Based on these facts and figures, it does not make economic or health sense to remove rebates from health fund policies for natural therapies.

So, what can you do?

Lobby your local Federal Minister – if you don’t know who that is click here.  Lobby your health fund.  Agree to doing a case study with your natural therapist.  You work hard, you vote, your health matters, and how you spend your money is important.  Sign the petition here  and like this Facebook page.  Share it with your friends.  This Facebook page has all the forms and links to enable you to protect these basic needs and speak up.    Remember 2019 is an election year and your vote matters.  Your health and wellbeing, and that of your family and friends, depends on it.


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