If we thought last year’s Federal Budget was unusual, coming as it did a month early at the beginning of an election campaign, then this year’s Budget (handed down on Tuesday 6 October), is extra-ordinary!
We welcome this short-term, essential COVID-19-recovery Budget, and look forward to the fulsome, long-term May 2021 Budget, which we expect will respond to the outcomes of the various important Royal Commissions underway.
The most significant measures in the short-term 2020-21 Budget such as the tax cuts and JobMaker wage subsidies, designed to kick start the economy, will impact on the MS community as much as on any other segment of Australian society.
The Federal Budget is always full of “sweet and sour” notes for the MS community – this year’s is no exception. In responding to the 2020-21 Budget, we’ve focused on those measures that will impact on those in the MS community that are most in need.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented expenditure on health in a Federal Budget and many anticipate it will grow even more in next year’s Budget.
- We agree with the Health Minister that, “the introduction of telehealth has been a revolution in the delivery of primary care” and has worked well for many in the MS community during the pandemic. It’s pleasing to see that this Budget extends the telehealth services for a further six months, with a commitment for, “the long-term design [to be] developed in conjunction with medical groups and the community”. Telehealth for specialists and allied health has also been extended.
- The Budget also gives continued recognition to mental health, including doubling from 10 to 20 the number of Medicare-funded psychological services. That will be readily used by many but will continue to mean those without the means, will be unable to afford the many psychologists whose higher fees are not covered by Medicare.
- It’s pleasing to see a strong rural health strategy: we know Australians with MS living in regional, rural and remote Australia face several disadvantages when it comes to workforce supply and healthcare access.
- We’re pleased with the ongoing commitment to ensuring people with MS have access to medicine when they need it, through guaranteed listing of all medicines on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) that receive a positive recommendation from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee – such as Mayzent® (siponimod), recommended for listing on the PBS for SPMS, “for patients with secondary progressive MS who are ambulant (with or without support)”, as reported in our August 2020 news item, and which is subject to final approval by Federal Cabinet.
- Also pleasing is the creation of the PBS New Medicines Funding Guarantee, to provide new funding for the listing of new medicines.
- It’s worth noting that the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) reached maturity at $20 billion in July 2020 (it was established in 2015), designed to provide ongoing sustainable funding for ground-breaking health and medical research. The earnings of the MRFF have been used to fund important health and medical research projects, supporting Australia’s best and brightest health and medical researchers over the long term. We look forward to opportunities for further funding of MS research initiatives (as set out in MSA’s Roadmap to Defeat MS in Australia).
Disability and social services
- Last year we expressed our disappointment that there was no increase to Newstart. Again, we’re disappointed not to see a permanent, adequate increase to JobSeeker and related payments, especially for those living with MS with a disability, who have been moved off the Disability Support Pension to Newstart.
- The number of disability-specific initiatives in the Budget is relatively small, but one which will impact Disability Employment Services is concerning. The Government is seeking to make savings of $1.4 billion over four years to “refocus existing employment services programs to those most in need of assistance”. Limited information means it’s hard to understand how these changes will be implemented and the impact on Disability Employment Services (DES).
- As we would have expected, the NDIS has reached full scheme, additional Australians will continue to be eligible and the costs of supporting some participants will grow. The Budget papers state that to meet these demands, an additional $3.9 billion will be made available to fund participant supports over the next four years. We welcome the ongoing commitment to fully funding the NDIS.
- Recipients of aged, carer, family and disability payments will receive $500 in cash payments in the next five months, in a move to stimulate the economy. Payments of $250 will be made in December 2020 and March 2021.
- In an already announced measure (and previously welcomed by MSA), the Budget contains $10.6 million over three years to establish a network of coordinators, located across Australia, to reduce the numbers of younger people in residential aged care.
- The Budget contains a $408.5 million addition to improve care and quality of aged care, but as many other have already commented, much more is needed in both funding and deep systemic reforms to this failing system. The announcement of 23,000 more home care packages is a start but many more are needed to meet the current estimate of 100,000 place shortages. MSA called for an additional 30,000 places in its Roadmap to Support People Ageing with MS, first published in late 2018, but since then the number of places needed and the waiting lists have continued to grow.
- The Continuity of Support Programme will be replaced by a new Disability Support for Older Australians program. Over three years from 2020-21, $125.3 million will be spent ensuring that older Australians with disability who were not eligible for the NDIS will continue to receive the supports they need, using a more “client-centred” approach. Approximately 3,600 Australians currently use the CoS Programme.
The Opposition’s Budget reply
A couple of highlights from the Opposition’s Budget Reply last night (Thursday 8/10/20) that will be of interest to the MS community:
- A commitment, from 1 July 2022, to remove the annual cap on the childcare subsidy, and an increase to the maximum Child Care subsidy to 90 per cent – cutting costs for 97% of all families in the system. These measures are designed to boost women’s workforce participation and given that 75% of those diagnosed with MS in Australia are women aged between 20 and 40, this is of particular interest.
- A commitment to invest in social housing, a measure designed to boost the economy and address the current significant shortfall in social housing stock, will be of interest to those in the MS community struggling financially.
- A commitment to establishing an Australian Centre for Disease Control, a measure which may provide some reassurance to older members of the MS community and those concerned that their MS treatments make them vulnerable to communicable diseases.
The Opposition Leader’s comment to focus on other areas such as the disability care workforce and shortage of nurses is also welcome.