Chris Bowen, the shadow treasurer, announced a raft of cuts last week including a move to stop taxpayer-funded private health insurance rebates for natural therapies if Labor came to power in July’s general election.
Though he admitted to using natural treatments himself “from time to time”, the treasurer claimed that the measure would save A$180m over four years, and A$704m over a decade, as he sought to cut spending by A16bn in a bid to balance the budget in five years.
"In times of difficult budgetary situations, it is not appropriate for taxpayers to have to fund and subsidise private health insurance cover for these treatments,” Bowen said after announcing the policy.
The subsidy covers a wide range of natural therapies, from reflexology and aromatherapy to pilates and complementary medicines.
Complementary Medicines Australia, the natural nutrition industry body, refuted Bowen’s economic claims by reiterating an “accepted principle” that Australia’s economy saves $10 for every $1 invested in preventative health.
Carl Gibson, chief executive of CMA, called Labor’s plans “nothing more than a false economy”.
“Preventive health is an essential move towards improving the cost-effectiveness of the Australian healthcare system and crucial in taking pressure off over-stretched hospitals,” Gibson said.
“Cutting the preventive healthcare rebate would not save money in the long run but would instead be detrimental to the government’s health budget.”
Regulated as low-risk medicines and used for minor, self-limiting conditions and maintaining wellbeing, complementary medicines, including minerals and multivitamins, can play a role in improving health and decreasing the risk of chronic disease.
Their efficacy of supplements has been backed up by the 2012 Physicians’ Health Study II, the largest randomised clinical trial of a multivitamin conducted to date, which showed a statistically significant 8% reduction in total cancer incidence in male physicians.
Moreover, an Australian Bureau of Statistics report found that consumers of complementary medicines are also more health-aware in terms of nutrition.
Last month, the bureau released figures showing that whereas those who visit a natural therapist are more likely to show significantly healthier eating behaviours, the typical Australian does not take sufficient dietary nutrition from the five main food groups.
“The burden of disease in Australia, and the associated economic cost, is a progressively top-of-mind issue, and the relatively small A$40m a year investment to the rebate for natural therapies is a small price to pay for the long-term health of Australians, out of a total spend of more than A$105bn,” said Gibson
“It is perhaps not surprising, then, that in Australia there has been a growing use and acceptance of complementary medicines by individuals keen to care for their general health and wellbeing.”