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24 Jun 2014

The Federal Government has been accused of being removed from reality with its claims that the $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund will ensure the financial sustainability of the health system.

In a major speech defending the Budget, Treasurer Joe Hockey declared the Fund could lead to medical breakthroughs that would improve lives and cut costs.

“We must find new cures and treatment to make our health system sustainable and affordable into the future,” Mr Hockey said. “By contributing now through sensible savings in our health Budget, we can become a global leader in medical research.”

Under the Government’s plan, money raised from the $7 Medicare co-payment and other sources will be directed into the Fund, which will provide around $1 billion a year for medical research from 2022-23.

But AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler is among sceptics concerned that the Government is taking money from primary health to help pay for research.

A/Professor Owler, who has experience in clinical research, said he had first-hand experience of how difficult it is to attract research funding, having spent “countless hours writing research grants”.

“So I understand the problems with research, and the AMA very much supports extra funding for research, but taking money out of primary health care and putting it into tertiary-level research is not the answer to the sustainability of the health care system,” the AMA President said.

“To think that, as the Treasurer said, we’re going to solve the sustainability of the health care system by coming up with a whole bunch of cures for diseases so that people won’t have to go to hospital…is a step out of the reality of what happens in research.

“Research is the hard grind, the international piece of work where progress is slow, it’s hard-fought and it’s something that’s not going to solve the sustainability of the health care system.”

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research Director Professor Douglas Hilton thought that while the way the Fund was to be financed could be debated, putting money into medical research was a good investment for the country.

Commonwealth Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb, who said he was not consulted about the creation of the Fund, told ABC television that, to be most effective, the Fund should not be too narrow in its focus.

Professor Chubb said that, instead of spreading the funds thinly over research projects, it should be used to finance the “big things” the country needs to do.

“We need to be able to fund clinical trials on a scale, we need to translate the results of medical research into patient care,” he said. “We've not been terribly good at that. We're getting better at it. We start from a pretty low base and this might well be an opportunity to do things in areas and on a scale that we haven't been able to do before. And if we can do that, then it'll be good.”

But Associate Professor of Medical Ethics at Flinders University, David Hunter, condemned the Fund as unfair and unethical, because the co-payment used to finance it would disproportionately hurt the disadvantaged, while most of the research effort was likely to go on treatments that would predominantly benefit the world’s wealthy.

In addition, A/Professor Hunter said, it came at the expense of preventive health measures that were likely to be of much greater benefit to the less well off.

He said that, rather than medical research, the Fund should have as its focus health research, particularly on examining ways to improve the health system.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 24 Jun 2014