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Budget to benefit healthcare and ‘people who need it most’

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By Colin MacGillivray

Labor has touted cost-of-living and healthcare relief as the centrepieces of last week’s federal budget, while the opposition has argued it does not do enough to help rural residents.

The Federal Government handed down its 2023-24 budget on Tuesday night – the second since Labor formed government at last year’s election.

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Treasurer Jim Chalmers said the budget would lay a foundation for economic growth by returning to a surplus and reducing debt, while easing cost-of-living pressures through measures including energy bill relief, reduced medicine costs and higher Jobseeker payments.

Among the health-related budget commitments are $5.7 billion across five years to strengthen Medicare, including $3.5 billion to triple the bulk billing incentive for general practitioner consultations for children under 16, pensioners and concession card holders.

It also commits $2.2 billion across five years to increase access to medicine via the national Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, allowing patients to buy two-month supplies of medicine for chronic conditions.

The government will also pay pensioners, veterans and concession card holders up to $500 in energy bill relief, while small businesses will be eligible for energy bill payments of up to $650 through a $1.5 billion package.

A separate $1.3 billion fund will offer low-interest loans for homeowners to make their homes more energy efficient.

The maximum rate of rent assistance will increase by 15 per cent, benefitting an estimated 1.1 million households.

Member for McEwen Rob Mitchell described the budget as a no-frills document that put downward pressure on inflation and ‘delivered on [Labor’s] promises’.

“Labor’s Energy Price Relief Plan will provide local residents and businesses with a rebate of up to $250,” he said.

“I know that this will make a real difference in household budgets – helping families in our community to get ahead.

“It’s about helping people right now while also keeping an eye on the longer term, which is why the surplus is important.

“It’s not a flash handout budget full of lollies, it’s about common sense, providing security and setting us up for the future.”

Mr Mitchell said about 12,500 people in McEwen would receive a $40 increase to their Jobseeker payments through the budget, with about 500 Jobseekers aged 55 to 59 to see an increase of $92.10 a fortnight to their payments.

He said about 12,000 households across the electorate would be eligible for a 15 per cent boost in rent assistance, with bulk billing incentives to set benefit an estimated 70,000 people.

“When people turn 55 it’s very difficult to find work, so we’re supporting them through a higher rate of JobSeeker,” he said.

“Increasing the single parent payment cut-off age from eight to 14 is going to affect quite a few families in McEwen as well.

“They are sensible things we can do to help people who need it the most.”

While Mr Mitchell spruiked the budget’s benefits, Member for Nicholls Sam Birrell said not enough money was being spent in his electorate.

He said a six per cent rise in the Heavy Vehicle Road User Charge would add 5.2 cents per litre to fuel costs and that farmers would pay extra for biosecurity controls.

“Add in rising energy costs and it is clear this budget fails hard-working Australians right at a time when they needed a plan to address inflation and reduce cost-of-living crisis,” he said.

“This budget doesn’t do anything to ease the pressure on families in Nicholls.”

Mr Birrell said the government had pushed regional spending into the future, with a regional grants program announced in October not opening for expressions of interest until July.

“That is code for cuts, and money being stripped from critical projects like the Shepparton bypass to be redirected to capital city projects,” he said.

“After two wet years and major flooding, our road network is a mess, you can’t drive anywhere without dodging potholes and dangerously deformed surfaces.

“We deserve better.”

Nexus Primary Health chief executive Amanda Mullins said she was ‘pleased’ with the early health measures in the budget.

“An extension on the Commonwealth Home Support Program is welcomed as we really have not had enough information to work with in modelling the supposed changes,” she said.

“Hopefully the extension will mean both providers and the community recipients get more chances to contribute to what it needs to look like.” 

Nexus clinical services manager Daniel Ciccosillo said the budget had plenty of scope to benefit patients.

“While we are pleased with the indexation boost to [Medicare Benefits Schedule] patient rebates from November, meaning patients will receive a higher rebate if they pay for a visit, we want to be clear – it doesn’t mean Nexus Wallan will return to a bulk billing service,” he said.

“We will continue to bulk bill healthcare card holders, pensioners and under 16 patients, but the co-payment system will continue. We will continue our bulk billing services at Broadford and Kinglake.

“Additionally, the government has committed more funds to support the clinic workforce, meaning we can put more resources into a multidisciplinary care team, helping our patients and clients navigate their health challenges with funding to support the strengthening and streamlining of chronic illness management.

“This is the first time since 2005 that we will see such a significant and important change to these plans, ensuring patients and doctors can better collaborate on manage chronic illnesses.”

Mr Mitchell said while funding for the Beveridge International Freight Terminal did not appear in this year’s budget, the project’s future was secure after the government-owned National Intermodal Corporation exercised an option to acquire 1100 hectares of land in Beveridge.

“We’ve made a series of changes to get it back on track and we’re committed to getting it done,” he said.

“In the next couple of years there will be a lot of planning done on the Northern Freight Terminal, but you won’t see a shovel in the ground.

“Industry has said it needs to happen, and it will happen now that the option has been exercised.”

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