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Being sick in Australia is harder than ever

  • 29 May 2018


Illness is part of our lives. When people get sick, we bring flowers and soup, wishing them well. Yet our public policies work in the opposite way, unable to respond in a supportive or understanding way.

The policy settings for sick people seem to operate as though they are yelling 'get up and stop slacking off in bed', instead of the far more usual 'look after yourself' that we tell our sick friends. Policies around income support, disability and health all combine to make being sick incredibly hard, sapping savings and making being sick even more stressful and difficult than it is already.

I first got sick when I was 19. I am now in my 40s and still sick. I have had periods of time in total remission, and others when I have been hospitalised for weeks on end. I have tried and taken myriad medications and treatments, and live with a now permanent degree of disability. The various public systems that I have engaged with over this time have become increasingly adversarial, in particular the income support system. The gaps between systems are getting wider, and the expenses higher.

Falling between these gaps are people who are sick, disabled, struggling. Policies are increasingly designed to be punitive and harsh, with little room for anyone's human frailties, let alone to acknowledge the real financial costs of being sick.

The basic income support payment for people who are deemed disabled is the disability support pension (DSP). This payment has undergone significant change over the last few years, leaving many people who need it trying to survive on the much lower Newstart payment. Newstart is now so low that people who rely on it have no rental properties they can afford in most capital cities in Australia. People are missing out on essentials, like food and medical treatment, because the payment is totally inadequate.

In 2011, the then ALP federal government tightened the so-called 'impairment' tables for eligibility for the DSP, and changed the work test to exclude people who could work between 15 and 30 hours per week. This narrowed the scope of the DSP to those who could work less than 15 hours per week. This drew arbitrary lines around who was sick and who wasn't; who needed that extra money each fortnight, and who didn't.

Before this, the DSP contained some flexibility to accommodate fluctuating conditions, and to ensure that people with chronic illnesses