Vision Summits put eye health and vision care on the agenda

While Australians wait patiently for the announcement of a date for the Federal election, Vision 2020 Australia and its members have spent the past month meeting with each of the three major parties to ensure eye health is positioned firmly on their agendas.

Three Vision Summits were held including one with Australian Green’s leader Senator Richard Di Natale on 15 February, another with Australian Labor Party’s Assistant Shadow Minister for Health Stephen Jones, Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs Shayne Neumann and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Matt Thistlethwaite on 16 February and the final one with the Australian Government’s Minister for Rural Health Senator Fiona Nash on 11 March.

Around 70 CEOs and staff from leading eye health and vision care organisations across Australia attended the Vision Summits asking critical questions of each of the federal parliamentarians in attendance.

CEO of Vision 2020 Australia Jennifer Gersbeck said the meetings were very successful and highlighted the importance that each party placed on eye health and vision care.

“It was a great opportunity to put prevention, treatment and disability on the radar as well as closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and preventing avoidable blindness in our region,” Ms Gersbeck said.

“It was very clear that eye health and vision care issues are important to our federal parliamentarians and that there is acknowledgement for the need to continue to invest in health,” she said.

Key outcomes from the Summits

Australian Government

Minister Nash said diabetes and preventative health were among the Government’s key priorities in the lead up to the 2016 Federal Election.

The Minister also indicated that the Government was currently considering a successor to the National Framework Implementation Plan and responded positively to the recommendation for a national eye health promotion program targeting areas with populations most at risk. Minister Nash encouraged the sector to submit a proposal.

The sector discussed the eye health needs of the Asia and the Pacific region and reinforced that more needed to be done, something Minister Nash said she would discuss with her party colleagues.

On the Indigenous eye health front, Minister Nash said the Government was “absolutely committed to eliminating trachoma by 2020”.

Showing her support, Minister Nash used the Vision Summit to announce $2.5 million for the ongoing funding of Indigenous Eye Health, the University of Melbourne, to build on its achievements made to date to bridge the eye health and vision care gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Australian Labor Party

During the Vision Summit with the Australian Labor Party parliamentarians told the sector that Labor’s key priorities heading into the election were safeguarding universal health coverage, education and employment and announcements would occur in due course.

Stephen Jones emphasised that any new commitments for eye health initiatives would need to be costed and funded and that the sector would need to consider the revenue side of program funding and not just expenditure.

He also said he was proud of the commitment Labor had made to Closing the Gap targets but that there was still a long way to go.

Shayne Neumann told the audience that supporting Indigenous eye health was important and suggested that better evidence of how eye health programs are working in communities would help ensure greater political support.

On the topic of independence and participation for Australians who are blind or vision impaired, it was suggested that the statutory review of the Living Longer Living Better aged care reforms scheduled for 2017, would provide an opportunity to consider any adjustments to better meet the needs of people who are blind or vision impaired within aged care.

Matt Thistlethwaite told the audience that aid spending would be higher under a Labor Government and that eye health would be a priority. The ALP has committed a further $40 million additional spending for Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP). Mr Thistlethwaite also asked the sector to provide information on how aid cuts would impact the sector to better inform the ALP in responding to the Government.

Australian Greens

Leader of the Australian Greens Richard Di Natale told the sector that while his party saw health as an investment it was an area that was often regarded as a burden.

He emphasised that the Greens considered tax reform to be about raising revenue to invest in health care and the delivery of services, such as those identified in the Vision 2020 Australia Policy Platform, and not only about balancing the budget.

“We keep hearing about unsustainable health spend, but it is our view that health spend is only as sustainable as you choose it to be. We can choose to invest in better healthcare, but it doesn’t mean we’ve got the revenue to pay for that.”

“I think Australians have a strong appetite to invest more in healthcare. What that does mean is ensuring we’ve got the revenue to pay for these things which is why we’ve been so active in things like the tax reform debate.”

Senator Di Natale suggested the Australian Greens would be willing to champion the Roadmap and recommended also looking for champions from across the major parties.

The Greens leader acknowledged the difference in service access between the NDIS and aged care. It was suggested that case studies highlighting inequity would be helpful to the Greens in supporting moves to adjust policy or guidelines in aged care to better address the needs of people who are blind or vision impaired.

He also recognised that many of Vision 2020 Australia’s members were focussed on international eye health and told the audience he was concerned that Australia’s cuts to foreign aid were impacting on eye health conditions in the region.

“The foreign aid budget is something Australia has a long history of being at the forefront of and over recent years, it’s fair to say with successive governments, that we used foreign aid as an ATM to balance the budget and the consequences of that are a whole range of conditions that are treatable and preventable aren’t getting the attention they deserve.”

The Greens have a policy to reach 0.7 per cent aid spending as a percentage of GNI by 2025.

Finally, Senator Di Natale reassured the sector that the Greens were committed to supporting eye health and vision care and encouraged the sector to look for opportunities such as assisting with program costings through the Parliamentary Budget Office, private members’ bills and motions in Parliament.