Doctors in distressMay 12, 2017
The future is at riskMay 12, 2017
FOCUS: MEDICAL INDEMNITY
It takes a lot to get doctors angry, but after more than a decade of failed negotiations the medical indemnity crisis came to a boil on 28 September 2003.
As bombs rained over Baghdad, firestorms fanned by high winds hit Canberra suburbs. 50 Cent was playing ‘In Da Club’ and Peter Jackson released the third instalment in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Australia suffered a heart-breaking loss to England in the Rugby World Cup and Makybe Diva won the Melbourne Cup – the first of three wins for the legendary mare.
But for doctors, 2003 was significant because after more than a decade of disappointing negotiations over medical indemnity, they finally got the Government’s attention.
Looking back, the rainmakers of the day recall the rally at Randwick Racecourse to be the pivotal turning point in the medical indemnity crisis.
Laurie Pincott, who served as AMA (NSW)’s Chief Executive Officer at the time, said they expected less than a thousand attendees to make it to the event held September 28.
“I remember staff preparing the agendas for the meeting and they asked me ‘how many should we print?’ I told them 800 should be enough.”
However, it quickly became apparent they had underestimated doctors’ willingness to step up and be heard on this issue, as more than 4000 medical professionals poured into the Queen Elizabeth Grandstand.
The media coverage was extensive. Television helicopters whirred overheard as doctors waved placards and passionately responded to prompts from the speakers.
(The NSW Doctor magazine later reported: “When Federal AMA President Dr William Glasson asked a crowd of 4,000 distressed and angry doctors what they wanted the Federal Government to do with the IBNR levy, many of the responses were unprintable.”)
According to Dr William Glasson, he realised that the rally was the catalyst the profession needed to kickstart more meaningful negotiations with Government.
“When I went to the Randwick Racecourse for the meeting, I walked in there and there was something like 4,000 doctors in this stadium, I knew that change was about to occur. I knew the Government was about to sit up and listen. In fact, within an hour of that meeting, I had a call from the then Prime Minister John Howard saying ‘Bill, I see you’ve had a meeting with doctors, we’ve obviously got a problem.’ And I said, ‘Mr Prime Minister, we’ve got a real big problem, and we must do something about it.’”
Following the rally, which took place on a Sunday, the Prime Minister sacked former health minister Kay Patterson and the next day, AMA representatives met with the incoming Health Minister, Tony Abbott.
According to Mr Pincott, the new health minister was completely across the issue.
“He basically had 24 hours to get up to speed, but Mr Abbott demonstrated a clear understanding of the crisis and the Government responded quickly.”
The mass rally in Sydney, coupled with an avalanche of hospital resignations and hundreds of letters from doctors to newspapers and local MPs, were critical in keeping the pressure on the Government.
However, according to Dr Glasson, outcry from the general public was also a huge motivator in the dispute.
“There was huge pressure from the public back on politicians – I said ‘go and talk to your politicians – tell them that this is not acceptable’. And politicians don’t respond to doctors, they only respond to the public, to their constituents, the ones who vote them in and out. So in generating that mood for change, it put pressure directly on the politicians to do something.
Dr Glasson also credited Mr Abbott for playing a significant role in ending the crisis.
“My negotiations with the then health minister Tony Abbott were exceptional. He was an exceptional person to deal with, very direct, got his hands dirty in terms of getting the legislation in place and was happy to advocate for that around the cabinet table and advocate with John Howard at the time, to put this support scheme in place, so I only have a huge amount of adoration for the then Government with Tony Abbott and John Howard.”
The rally forced the Government of the day to accept that the medical indemnity system in Australia needed to be fixed and that continuing high medical indemnity premiums and lack of security would not give doctors the confidence, security or motivation to keep working.
After a series of high level meetings, the AMA finally convinced
the Government to drop the crippling Incurred But Not Reported (IBNR) levy.
So what does it take to get 4000 doctors to protest against the Government?
Dr Glasson likens doctors to bears. Slow to react, but if poked and prodded enough – then look out – “…because they will take everything out in front of them, including the government of the day
if they’re not listened to.”