Between 1946 and 1961 in the wake of the Second World War, childbirth rates soared. This population spike gave birth to a generation known as the baby boomers. The sheer numbers of this generation gave them enough voting and purchasing power to change the fabric of our culture. Now, Australia’s boomer population is ageing and things are changing again.
Let’s review the controversy and examine how the boomer generation impacted the current health system.
The debate: talking about that generation
Boomers are ageing – the number of people aged over 85 years will increase from 0.4 million now to 1.8 million in 2050 – and as they do so their healthcare needs are likely to change, putting pressure on the system. This ageing population is a genuine concern for the future sustainability of Australia’s healthcare system.
Chris Sidoti, Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner in 1999 and himself a baby boomer, infamously stated that the boomers were ‘the most selfish generation in history.’ But their generation produced the politicians that introduced Medicare, and they were the ones that voted for it in 1984. So, what is the future of our healthcare system? To really speak to the future of Australia’s healthcare, we have to look at how Medicare began.
Medicare: how did we get here?
‘With this historic initiative, all Australians now have a new, simpler and fairer health insurance system.’ Prime Minister Robert Hawke, March 5 1984
In the 19th century, healthcare in Australia was private and depended largely on factors to do with wealth. Old age and invalid pensions were introduced in 1908, a maternity allowance in 1912.
The healthcare system didn’t start to resemble the current system until the mid-1970s when the Whitlam government introduced Medibank, the precursor to Medicare. Fraser’s opposition initially rejected the bill, but eventually it was passed and was implemented in 1975.
Soon after, the Whitlam government was dismissed, and the incoming Fraser government altered Medibank, but the basic principles stood. In 1984, Hawke’s government restored brought in a healthcare system closer to Whitlam’s original vision, and Medicare was born.
How does Medicare work?
Medicare usually covers 85% of medical fees, and it’s funded through both general revenue and the Medicare levy, which is currently set at 1.5% of taxable income.
The ABS has reported that ‘The average number of Medicare services used per person in a year increased by 41%, from 7 services in 1984-85 to 10 in 1993-94.’ This, when we also consider that some research has found that fewer than 20 percent of boomers in Australia have superannuation or private health cover to fund their health needs after retirement, is cause for concern.
The question is, with increasing pressure on the system, will the Medicare levy rise?
And this leads to the even bigger conundrum. Should generations saddled with HECS or HELP debt boomers never had, generations who have found it increasingly difficult to enter the housing market dominated by a generation who own 55% of the nation’s private wealth, be the ones that pay more taxes to keep baby boomers healthy?
There must be some kind of way out of here
There isn’t an easy answer to the question of how to make our healthcare system sustainable in Australia.
Do Gen-X and Gen-Y need more political representation so legislation can be introduced that will decrease health cover and force the boomers to find the money to pay for their healthcare themselves?
Or do we need to completely overhaul the public health care system and find more effective ways to spend our limited resources?
What do you think?
Opinions about the impact that the boomer generation has had on Australia is a mixture of affectionate celebration of the political change they wrought, like Helen Razer’s recent defence – and damning blame.
We asked Professor Sandra Leggat, who researches health services and policy reform and will be speaking about the future sustainability of Australia’s healthcare system on October 21, what she saw as a solution to this dilemma. She had this to say:
Medicare, and the resulting healthcare system, was developed to meet the needs of Australians for acute illnesses. Generally, people got an infectious disease or needed a particular surgery, were treated and sent home – usually in better shape.
But now the health conditions affecting the baby boomers are more likely to be long-standing – such as diabetes and cancers – with limited ‘quick fixes’. Yet the system, and the health professionals working in the system, are still largely focused on fixing acute illness.
Perhaps Australia needs different health professionals, working closer to our homes, shopping centres, sporting grounds and workplaces to keep baby boomers away from the expensive hospitals and doctors.
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Image: Doctor by Darko Stojanovic (CC0 1.0)