You’ll be boweled over by this cheap Budget lifesaver
If most of us ran our household budgets like governments run health budgets, we’d be on the streets.
The lack of apparent logic in health funding will be highlighted today by a joint statement from independent MPs Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie, calling on the federal government to expand its National Bowel Cancer Screening Program in the 2012-13 budget.
For the three Independents to make this united plea says two things: they are concerned for the health of the nation and for people in their electorates; and the argument for an urgent expansion of the NBCSP is compelling.
I’ve had direct discussions with the independents on this issue and can personally vouch for the first point. The second point should be just as easy to explain.
Bowel cancer is the nation’s second biggest cancer killer yet one of the easiest to treat if detected early. And it’s one of only three cancers (along with cervical and breast cancers) that can be picked up early with a population screening test that has been shown in multiple studies to save lives on a cost-effective basis.
The NBCSP could prevent up to one third of all bowel cancer deaths among Australians age 50 and over if it was available to them every two years. However, it remains a one-off test only to people turning 50, 55 and 65 – almost six years after being introduced. Millions are missing out on a test that could save their lives. In addition, independent analyses have shown that a full NBCSP is one of the best economic investments in public health available to the government.
Why, then, in a country that is second on the United Nation’s Human Development Index do we need three independent parliamentarians to call for such a no-brainer of a budget initiative?
Welcome to the bizarre world of health economics.
Multiple studies over many years have shown that investing in disease prevention is great value for the taxpayer. The milestone Applied Economics’ analysis, Returns on Investment in Public Health, published by the federal government a decade ago, showed extraordinary returns on a range of key investments.
For example, money put into reducing tobacco consumption from the early 1970s had returned $2 for every $1 spent; programs for reduced cardiovascular disease had yielded $8 for every $1 spent, while measles prevention had led to a massive $155 to $1 return on investment.
The combined returns are like the enviably good fortune of the person you meet at a party who tells you they bought a unit at Bondi 20 years ago for $100,000 and now it’s all paid off and worth $1 million. It’s that simple.
So why do governments only invest around 2 per cent of the health budget into prevention? The answer, it seems, is that they tend to think in the short term – read “election cycle” – at the expense of the community’s longer-term benefit.
The big economic gains from public health investments usually take a decade to accrue. But when they do, they pay off phenomenally. It’s a grand-scale equivalent of the homebuyer who budgeted to chip away at their mortgage 20 years ago and is now a millionaire. The main difference is that the smart homebuyer isn’t worried about short-term political popularity. If they were, instead of paying the mortgage they might splurge continually on costly partying. Fun for a while, but few of us who seek long-term financial security can live this way.
What’s even more frustrating and tragic about the NBCSP is that its limited reach means there are people walking around in good health, right now, with a fatal bowel cancer that will kill them because they did not have access to the program. So it’s about saving lives now as well as ROI.
We need people to urge the government to run public health the way most of us manage our long-term personal finances. All it requires is some patience – beyond the next election. Sure, not all of us can afford to invest in real estate at all, but with around $300 billion in annual tax revenues to allocate, the government is better-placed than most of us to invest wisely in the short and the long term.
Support the Cancer Council’s campaign at www.getbehindbowelscreening.com.au
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