Health war victims

It’s about restoring sight, Kevin!

          “There is a condition worse than blindness, and that is,
            seeing something that isn’t there.”
                                              Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). 

Having such a conspicuously Christian Prime Minister as Kevin Rudd you expect that certain Christian values would seep into the ideological platform of his government. You would imagine that during the weekly camera opportunity that occurs each Sunday outside Canberra’s Saint John’s Anglican church, Kevin Rudd might have a few words to say about one of the great enduring images of the life of Christ — restoring the sight of the blind.  

But of biblical miracles, and present day medical miracles, our usually loquacious Prime Minister is extremely quiet. Actually he is totally silent. 

This week I was involved in assisting a 72 year old colleague getting to the Launceston Eye Hospital, wait 3 hours while he underwent the process of a cataract operation, then drive him home. He is a private patient. Even though he receives a modest pension, he still maintains his lifetime membership of a medical benefit fund. 

About six months ago he had to have a cataract operation in his left eye to correct failing eyesight. The operation was performed and he paid a gap fee of about $500. A month ago his right eye began to fail and his optometrist detected a developing cataract in that eye too. He was booked in for a second cataract operation this week. 

The day before the operation he received a telephone call from the hospital advising him that owing to cost-cutting measure in Wayne Swan’s 2009 Budget, which reduced the Commonwealth Medicare payment for cataract surgery, my friend would now be paying a gap of over $1300. 

My friend is a victim of a developing war between the Rudd government and the medical profession over fees—and the elderly are being used as cannon-fodder. 

The government’s tactic, led by the Minister for Health, Nicola Roxon, has been to belittle the skill (and risk) involved in cataract surgery, in an attempt to reduce eye surgeon’s fees — or at least the Medicare rebate paid by the Rudd government. Roxon has slashed the rebate for cataract surgery by 50%.  

So what’s involved. 

A cataract operation consists a preliminary consultation and examination of the eye. The patient is then booked in for surgery which takes place in an operating theatre with specialised equipment where the eye is cut open, the existing eye lens is shattered and removed and a new artificial lens is inserted … and the eye stitched. 

The eye surgeon, in my colleague’s case, was assisted by a senior theatre nurse and an anaesthetist. While the actual operation involved about only 35 minutes of surgery time, the prep, operation and recovery time covered nearly 3 hours. The surgeon’s fee was $1185 which included the preliminary examination, the operation, and two post operative examinations. 

On the October 29, this year, Nicola Roxon made the astounding comment in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph that a cataract operation is just a “minor procedure” and “could be done in some developing countries for just $25.” Whether she is prepared to have her cataract replacements done (should she ever be unfortunate enough to need them) under a banyan tree in the Sahara desert, or in a Fred Hollows clinic in Kathmandu, she didn’t say. 

Neither has she said why an ideological argument that she has over fees with the Ophthalmologists Association of Australia should be played out with the life-savings of aged pensioners — the ones who save her government money by continuing to be private patients and continue being members of private health funds. 

The Rudd government is against private health cover, and has a fixation with eye surgeons earning what they call “high fees”. Eye surgeons claim that their monthly overheads are about $50,000 and their actual net return on an operation can be under $100. 

It seems extraordinary that a government, that has no problem hiring top legal professionals at up to $15,000 a day for their court battles, and pay really extraordinary fees for their multitude of reports and advice, has trouble with fees paid to surgeons who restore the sight of the elderly. 

More extraordinary is the fact that for each elderly person who decides not to proceed with cataract surgery under their private health insurance, but to enter the public hospital waiting list, it will cost the Rudd government about $3500 per eye operation. And the waiting list for public hospitals means enduring cataract problems for between 18 months and 2 years. 

In this time the elderly can expect the risks of a fall to double, an eight fold risk of a hip fracture and a three fold chance of confusion and depression. As for reading a book, watching television … tough! 

For evidence to prove that the conspicuous compassion of the Rudd government is a complete fraud, the issue of cataract surgery for the elderly is the place to go. The defence of the government’s cataract policy in the Senate by Senator Joe Ludwig, two weeks ago, was a disgrace. 

It takes about 15 years of training and experience before surgeons are let loose on the human eye. For the elderly (as well as the young) the thought of someone cutting open you eye is a big decision. The last thing government should be doing is targeting those who are performing one of the most stunning medical procedures of our times. 

Kevin Rudd should get his health minister, Nicola Roxon and Senator Ludwig to a Bible reading or two. Restoring the sight of the elderly really is a worthwhile goal. 

Here’s looking at you.


Leave a Reply