The impact of the Federal Budget on women goes way beyond so-called ‘specific interest’ measures like the paid parental leave scheme and changes to family benefits, says Kristine Olaris, CEO of Women’s Health East in Victoria, who warns that GP co-payments and additional charges for prescriptions and tests will further increase gender inequality in Australia.

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Kristine Olaris writes:

Since the announcement of the Federal government budget last week, much analysis and commentary has rightly focused on the very real likelihood that many of the policy and program changes will increase inequality in Australia.

Analysis of the impacts of the budget on women has largely focused on the announcements that are directly related to, or perceived to be of specific interest to women such as the paid parental leave scheme and the changes to family benefit payments. While these are important, more consideration needs to be given to the gendered impact of the other areas of the budget and their potential to increase gender inequality in this country.

The changes to Medicare charges for visits to GPs are a significant example of a policy change which will disproportionately disadvantage women.

The budget introduces a $7 co-payment for visiting a GP and an additional $7 fee for out of hospital pathology and diagnostic imaging services. It also increases the co-payment for medicines by 80 cents to $6.90 to those eligible for concessions and by $5 to $42.70 for others.

Whilst the co-payment for the visit to the doctor has gained the most attention, it is clear that these changes would mean that, in visiting your GP in future, you will be likely to incur a variety of charges.  Data on GP services in Australia shows that for every 100 people seen in their practice, GPs on average provide 83 prescriptions and order 45 pathology and 10 imaging tests.

It is also known that women in Australia visit their doctor considerably more than men. Women account for approximately 57 per cent of all visits to GPs of those aged over 15 years. This gender difference is greatest in the 15–44 year aged group where women make up about 63 per cent of those visiting GPs. Another peak is for women aged 75 years or over who comprise 58 per cent of GP encounters for people of that age group.

GP consultations with women are also significantly more likely to involve the management of more health problems, thereby increasing the likelihood that a higher number of prescriptions be written and tests ordered as a part of those consultations.

As we age we are more likely to have chronic conditions and disabilities. This is reflected by an increased number of problems addressed by doctors in a consultation with an older person, and an increased number of medicines prescribed. Due to women’s longer life expectancy, women are more highly represented in our older population, making up 54 per cent of people aged 65 and over and 65 per cent of people aged 85 and over. This longevity results in women living more years with ill health and disability.

Single parent families made up 26 per cent of all families with children at our last Census. In 82 per cent of these families the sole parent is a woman. Single parents will bear the burden not only of their own healthcare costs but also that of their children. Women are also much more likely to be the primary carer of others including their spouse or elderly family members.

Financial security is a very real issue for many women in Australia.  Women’s full time employment  earnings are on average 17 per cent less than men’s  – a difference of about $262.50 per week. Women are more likely than men to have time out of employment for caring responsibilities and are more likely to work on a part time or casual basis. Women also retire with less savings and women’s superannuation payouts are on average a third of that of men.

When these increased medical costs are considered in light of women’s longer lifespan, lower workforce participation and lifetime incomes it is clear to see that the changes to Medicare will put significant pressure on women’s finances, and will indeed increase gender inequalities.

Women will be disproportionately disadvantaged by the proposed changes to co-payments for GPs. It is likely that if other policy and program changes announced in the Budget were analysed in light of the different impacts on men and women, we would highlight many other areas of concern.

Gender inequality underpins a broad array of health and wellbeing issues, particularly for women. At a time when the community is becoming increasingly concerned about the epidemic of men’s violence against women, and when we know that gender inequality lies at the root of this problem, it is a big concern that the federal government is implementing changes which will increase this inequality.

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