Budgeting for commonsense

Chief Advocate Ian Henschke outlines what the next Federal Budget priorities for older Australians should be, and why.

In case you haven’t noticed, we could be in the run up to the next federal election.  While it could be as late as 19 November 2019, it could be as early as Saturday  4 August this year. That’s five months away and so the May Budget may be framed as an election sweetener. Some political pundits are saying the government is likely to go to the people early rather than late, so the public response to the next budget could be crucial to the government’s chances. History tells us it’s likely to be one that gives rather than takes away.  Each year, as part of the Federal Budget process, National Seniors makes a  pre-budget submission. This year our submission was informed by our advocacy survey of members late last year.  More than 6,000 members completed the survey. Given many statistically significant surveys, such as political polls, have as few as 600 participants, what they said is a remarkably accurate indicator of the mood of older Australians.  With political power balanced on a knife edge, politicians and policymakers should take note of their views. The rising cost of health cover is clearly one of their biggest worries.  The survey was conducted before the latest announcement of an increase in premiums. If fees went up again, 76 per cent of respondents said they would cancel or reduce their cover. That’s a powerful message: three out of every four older Australians are going to drop out or drop their cover.  National Seniors told the government it should freeze premiums until the system is reformed. And a system where 86  per cent of anaesthetic procedures are charged above the scheduled fee certainly needs reform. I recently met a woman in her seventies who told me a tale of woe. She and her husband had paid top health cover since they married more than 50 years ago. Now, because of illness at the end of their lives, they are being financially crippled,  paying thousands of dollars a year in out-of-pocket expenses.  Over the past 10 years those expenses have increased at three times the rate of inflation. Those on fixed incomes and pensions can’t keep pace.  We called for a freeze on private health insurance premiums in our submission but the government has agreed to an average rise of 3.95 per cent from 1 April. This rise is about double the rate of wage rises and inflation. The only good news is: it’s smaller than last year’s hike and the lowest for 20 years. We will continue to push for a freeze and for more reform.  Home care is another area older Australians desperately want fixed. It’s not just an issue for seniors because for almost every older Australian there’s a family of younger voters who are affected by their parents’ aged care and home care issues.  We are told it makes much more sense from a social, medical and financial viewpoint to keep people in their homes for as long as possible. It’s also what most Australians want. But the sad reality is more than 60,000 people are waiting in the queue for a home care package and another 40,000 are receiving one that doesn’t meet their needs.  We’ve called for the doubling of the number of level three and level four home care packages. This must be fixed and must be a Federal Budget priority.  One of our longest running campaigns has been our rightsizing policy. More than eight in 10 members surveyed said the government should adopt it. In the lead up to the last budget National Seniors generated a lot of media attention and broad support for a simple policy that would allow up to $250,000 from the sale of a pensioner’s home to be exempt from the means test. It would help those who need help.  But what came out of last year’s budget was a downsizing incentive that favoured the wealthy. It gave a downsizing couple the opportunity to up their super by a total of $600,000 – $300,000 each. Great if your house is worth $1 million-plus, but people of more modest means simply wouldn’t have anything like that amount of money left to roll into super, once they’d downsized to a smaller house.  We are continuing to push our policy. Our research also shows many people are staying in unsuitable and sometimes unsafe homes simply because if they downsized they would lose or have their pension cut.  The government needs to address the cost of living issues for all seniors but particularly for pensioners. These days, many pensioners work to supplement their government benefit. A simple effective measure to help them is to increase the work bonus to $10,000pa. We’ve called on the government to do this. We’ve also called on it to retain the energy supplement and to accelerate the reforms needed to bring electricity costs down for all Australians as a matter of urgency. 

Lastly, the Centrelink call wait times must be addressed. I’m regularly told of people wanting information at times of crisis who hang up in frustration. Senate estimates revealed almost half a million calls to the older Australians line were abandoned last year. Potentially, twice as many calls were blocked and never got through because the line is always engaged. Many of them are ringing National Seniors because we have an information desk to help members with financial and aged care issues. The Centrelink wait times are inhuman and must be fixed.

Whether this is the last budget before the next federal election or not, it must provide some wins for older Australians – and for commonsense. National Seniors will be doing its best on your behalf. 

To read National Seniors’ Federal Budget submission, click here.

This article by Ian Henschke originally appeared in the March/April/May 2018 edition of 50 Something magazine.

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