Opinion: Elective surgery resumes but backlogs leave us all guessing

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Picture: Jafar Ahmed

In the grand scheme of things, I’m one of the luckier ones in the elective surgery logjam hundreds of thousands of Australians now find themselves in.

I have four basal cell carcinomas I need lopped off the noggin. They’re not going to kill me – probably – or grow at a rapid rate in the next few months, although they still have to come off. If left untreated they’ll just get bigger, spreading to the muscles, nerves, bones and brain.

But that’s trivial when compared with the tens of thousands of Australians with far more serious life-threatening conditions who are still left wondering when they’ll get the call-up for surgery.

Research by the international CovidSurg project, published in the British Journal of Surgery, estimated more than 400,000 elective surgeries – including 25,000 cancer surgeries – were cancelled in Australia due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Newcastle colorectal surgeon Peter Pockney, a member of the organising committee for the CovidSurg project, said it would take an estimated 10 months to clear the backlog if elective surgery was increased to 110 per cent of pre-pandemic capacity.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that state governments have given hospitals in NSW and Victoria the green light to increase elective surgery from 25 per cent of pre-pandemic levels to 50 per cent by May 31, then 75 per cent by June 30.

Depending on the number of COVID-19 cases as social-distancing restrictions ease, elective surgery could be restored to 100 per cent capacity at the end of July, but there is no definite plan to increase this to the 110 per cent needed to start clearing the backlog.

Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone feared patients facing additional delays after waiting for surgery in the public system would be left in pain or suffering potentially deadly complications.

Online comparison site comparethemarket.com.au wants us to believe that private health insurance is the answer.

They sent us a media release extolling its virtues at times at times like these, and reminding us that hospital wait times in the public system averaged around 109 days pre-COVID-19, compared with just 24 days for private hospitals.

“Private health insurance benefits the overall health system, as it helps to relieve pressure on the public system,” said comparethemarket’s ‘health expert’ Anthony Fleming.

“Private health cover not only helps private patients – by reducing doctor’s fees, providing quicker access for hospital services and a choice of accommodation – but the rest of the population who are also in line for surgery admission.”

But he would say that, wouldn’t he, because comparethemarket.com.au makes its money on a commission basis each time we sign up to a service through their site.

What he fails to also conveniently mention is that having health insurance still doesn’t always guarantee we won’t be left with a massive bill to deal with at the end of it.

Take my experience with the aforementioned BCCs, for example.

I was fully prepared to bite the bullet, go private and cough up the $500 hospital excess on my Bupa plan to dodge the queues.

But then the specialist, who I paid $220 to see for 15 minutes, sent me his out-of-pocket bill estimate – $3000, excluding anesthetist. How much would that be? Oh, I’d have to ask the anesthetist.

When I told the office I didn’t have that kind of cash lying around at present, they immediately lopped $1000 off. That’s great, but where are they plucking these figures from to begin with?

A quick look at the latest APRA quarterly figures for health insurance procedures across Australia show that the average out-of-pocket cost for plastics, which I was needing because of the position and complexity of the procedure, was a little over $400.

It’s no wonder, more and more mid-life Australians are bailing on health insurance full stop with wild, and random discrepancies like these.

The bottom line is, shop around and don’t take the word of your GP when it comes to specialists.

Do your own homework. Your health provider has a list of those who will do many common procedures with no out of pocket fee.

For everyone else, there really is no other option but to take your chances in the public system and pray that these absurd restrictions are lifted soon.

As I write this, there are just 31 people in Australian hospitals with the virus, yet operating rooms around the country continue to suspend vital surgeries so staff can cope with a second wave of COVID-19.

I don’t know what the solution is, but there has to be a happier medium than this.

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