Are these agreements really worth it?

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Health minister Greg Hunt has signed yet another formal agreement with a leading health stakeholder group.

Mr Hunt has negotiated a ‘compact’ with the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine.

Since his appointment in January last year, Mr Hunt has 'locked down' a range of stakeholder groups through a number of formal agreements and compacts.

The pharmaceutical, medical device and private health sectors, along with groups representing the medical profession, have secured formal agreements with the government in return for outcomes such as savings measures and reforms. There is even an example of one sector having an agreement as well as a compact.

Mr Hunt is also progressing negotiation of the next five-year public hospital agreement with the eight state and territory governments. Six of the eight have already signed-up for an agreement that will see the commonwealth inject an additional $30 billion in the public hospital system over the five years starting in 2020.

The plethora of agreements has secured support for a range of reforms but also served a political purpose in quelling the angst with health stakeholder groups that so contributed to Labor’s successful ‘Mediscare’ campaign during the 2016 federal election.

The health portfolio was a major challenge for the Coalition in its first term in office.  The National Commission of Audit and 2014-15 Budget included a number of deeply unpopular measures, including a GP patient co-payment, many of which failed to win parliamentary support.

Mr Hunt was appointed health minister in January 2017, following the resignation of predecessor Sussan Ley. He accelerated the ‘political repair’ process, already progressed by Ms Ley, by winning Cabinet support to scrap some of the remaining unpopular measures.

Formal agreements and compacts have been a key component of Mr Hunt’s approach to the portfolio. The next health minister, regardless of who wins the election, will face a virtual ‘thicket’ of agreements with an array of stakeholder groups.

Yet the evidence suggests they will not really hamper the actions of a future government or minister given Mr Hunt has himself moved to impose further reforms on sectors covered by recently negotiated agreements.

The research-based pharmaceutical sector signed an extensive five-year strategic agreement with Mr Hunt in April last year but within a matter of weeks faced a move for additional reforms.

The government offers little in the agreements beyond commitments to consult on future reform, something sectors have almost always had anyway. They do create a lot of new processes for the Department of Health.

Mr Hunt’s approach has won the short-term backing of many stakeholder groups, and taken health off the front page, but it may ultimately lead to a ‘rebound effect’ when they work out their agreements and compacts actually have very little value.