Data reveals the eye-watering cost of Australia’s COVID-19 health response

Australia spent nearly $48 billion on the health response to COVID-19 between 2020 and 2022, new data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reveals.

Australia ranked 7th lowest for additional spending out of 36 countries the report shows, while achieving one of the lowest excess death rates.

“Australia’s expenditure was effective, and our outcomes were good,” Geoff Callagan, an AIHW spokesperson, tells Cosmos.

The total comprises $35.1 billion from the federal government level and $11.9 billion from the states and territories. Individual Australians contributed about $0.9 billion on COVID-19 goods and services, like rapid antigen tests, personal protective equipment and hand sanitiser.

Callagan says, “the vast majority of expenditure is coming from government.” 

“Only a small amount of expenditure is coming from individuals, what you would expect in a universal health system … There was not a lot of pressure put upon individuals to spend money on the health response to COVID.”

Overall, $27.9 billion went to primary care – including $6.1 billion on the vaccine rollout – and $10.5 billion to public hospitals.

The significant figure of $48 billion, roughly equates to the combined total of annual recurrent spending on musculoskeletal disorders ($14.7 billion), cancers ($14.6 billion) and cardiovascular diseases ($14.3 billion), details contained in a second report released by the AIHW.

However, as the AIHW report points out, the cost of Australia’s COVID-19 response was lower than in many other OECD countries. 

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Health system spending compared to trend, 2020 – 2022 / Credit: AIHW based on OECD data

Callagan says, Australia’s spending was lower because it wasn’t as hard hit by the disease. “There’s a number of reasons for that – geography, but also we did have a pretty strong response by the states and territories in terms of protecting the community, we had the vaccine […] all those things combined meant that we didn’t have a huge burden in terms of excess mortality either.”

Only Mexico, Chile, Japan, Belgium, Switzerland and Norway ranked lower than Australia for additional spending. While New Zealand, Denmark, Japan and Taiwan had lower levels of excess mortality than Australia.

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Excess mortality rate during the COVID-19 pandemic / Credit: AIHW based on Our world in data

Australia’s total excess mortality from 2020 to 2022 was 4% higher than expected, the report says. 

Individual Australians spent a combined $878 million on COVID-19-related services and items. 

For individuals, the biggest ticket items were rapid antigen tests ($597 million), personal protective equipment (PPE) like respirators and face masks ($224 million), sanitiser ($56 million), prescription medications for COVID-19 treatment ($1.3 million) and out-of-pocket spending on general practitioner services related to COVID-19 ($0.1 million).

Callagan says the relatively small share of out-of-pocket expenses for individuals was notable, and likely due to the high rates of bulk billing for COVID-19 related presentations and pharmaceuticals, and spending by governments on aspects like the vaccine rollout, COVID-19 testing and PPE.

The AIHW regularly tracks health system spending through the Medicare Benefits Schedule and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Its report on the COVID-19 health response is broader in scope and includes public health spending on aspects like the vaccine rollout and testing.

Tracking spending on the health system, including the response to COVID-19, helps ensure that resources are being allocated efficiently, and that Australian are getting good outcomes from their health system, Callagan says.

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