OLDER PEOPLE FORCED TO CUT BACK ON MEDICAL AND ESSENTIAL SERVICES
NEWS ANALYSIS BY JOHN McNAMEE
Alarming new statistics released recently show that price rises have been having a devastating effect on Australia’s ageing population.
In many cases, price hikes have forced elderly people to forego medical examinations and to cut back sharply on everyday essentials.
More than half of the people aged over 60 interviewed during the nationwide survey admitted that they now have genuine fears they will outlive their savings.
This places tremendous psychological pressure on ageing couples who can see no relief in sight for their financial woes.
The figures show for example, that so worried are the elderly about making their money last, they have been reducing their overall consumption…..impacting not only on their health and wellbeing but also their quality of life.
For example, the statistics show that a large proportion of pensioner households have reduced their real spending (i.e. spending that has been adjusted for inflation) on petrol, clothing and footwear, medical, and car maintenance by more than one-quarter.
The research, conducted by National Seniors Australia Productive Ageing Centre, shows also that a significant proportion (up to 15%) of households – particularly pensioner households – are no longer spending any money on cigarettes and alcohol, public transport, eating out, clothing, medical fees or on car and home maintenance.
Titled “A Squeeze on Spending: An Update on Household Living Costs for Senior Australians”, the report discloses that over the five years to March 2013, the majority of the top 10 price rises were for essential household goods or services. The biggest price increase was for electricity, which rose by 83% – more than six times the overall rate of inflation.
Other non-discretionary (essential) items, such as water, gas, insurance, medical services, and rates, all rose by more than double the inflation rate.
To cope with the higher prices for essentials, households have changed their spending patterns.
Cost-of-living pressure resulted in many seniors going without some types of goods and services and reducing spending on others.
Some trends were worrying: reduced spending on medical expenses could mean some seniors are receiving less health care, and an increase in the proportion of low-income seniors living in rented homes makes them vulnerable to rent increases.
Furthermore, the research shows that 11% of Australians aged 60+ can’t cover their basic household expenses, and only 5% are very dissatisfied with their current financial wellbeing.
However, there is a greater level of concern with their long-term financial outlook: 17% of people aged 60+ are extremely worried and 54% are at least worried that they will outlive their savings.
To add further stress, it has just been announced that the cost of seeing a doctor has increased, leaving low income retirees struggling to cover the growing Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) rebate gap.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) recommended that from this month, doctors would increase their fees by an extra $2, from $71 to $73.
But the MBS rebate will stay as it is until 1 July 2014 when a freeze implemented by the former Labor government, to curb spending costs, loses effect.
National Seniors chief executive Michael O’Neill said low income retirees who were unable to access a bulk-billing doctor may have to pay around $36 out-of-pocket just to see a GP.
“The cost of GP visits is becoming an increasing burden for older Australians, particularly those over 75 who have multiple health conditions and need to see a doctor regularly,’’ Mr O’Neill said.
“Now, this increasing gap means retirees on low, fixed incomes, may consider skipping seeing their doctor altogether.
“The AMA’s scheduled fee increase will only serve to widen the rebate gap.
“The onus is either on doctors to show good will by deferring any fee increases until July or the new government to lift the MBS rebate freeze now.”
Mr O’Neill said the latest research showed pensioner households were definitely reducing their spending on medical costs.
“This is a worrying trend as reduced spending on medical expenses could mean some pensioners are receiving less medical treatment when they really need it.”
The staggering conclusion to be drawn from all this is that people are not getting the necessary medical help at a time in their life when they are most vulnerable.
Men in their 60s, who are susceptible to such illnesses as prostate and bowel cancer and women who fear breast cancer, may be forced to defer their medical checks because of financial concerns.
This could have fatal consequences.
As they reduce their overall spending, they will also be cutting back on healthy food items which could accelerate their health decline.
How many of us know people in our own groups who have succumbed to cancers of various types because they have delayed going for specialist medical treatment.
Seniors officials agree that there should not be an excuse for anyone in the older age groups to have regular check-ups for particularly, bowel, breast and prostate cancers.
They warn that it could be too late once you start feeling the symptoms.
“Some of the tests may be disagreeable and uncomfortable, but what’s a little nastiness if a serious illness can be detected at an early stage and fought,” the official said.
He said the “it won’t happen to me” syndrome, particularly predominant among macho men, is the ultimate folly.
“Testing procedures are quite sophisticated these days and hopefully involve as little pain as possible so it’s a worry when you hear of quite sensible people who tell you they haven’t been for a check-up for years,” he said.
It seems strange to most of us then that the Governments of the day are forcing elderly people to think twice about getting vital treatment and also to reduce their quality of life because they are not protected from the horrendous cost of living surges that eat away at their nest eggs.
Let’s hope that this latest research leads to an action plan that will relieve the pressure on Australia’s long-suffering ageing population.
They say we’re living longer these days because we know better how to look after our overall fitness, diet and health … so let’s hope that those benefits won’t be eroded by insidious price hikes that have the opposite effect.