Former Liberal health minister Kay Patterson says people must be educated about the cost of health services they use, warning the government faces tough choices as the health budget comes under ''enormous'' pressure.
Dr Patterson, who was health minister for almost two years immediately before Tony Abbott, said many changes, including ageing, increased obesity, new drugs and technologies, and antibiotic resistance, had combined to place ''enormous demands'' on the budget.
''If we want to have the level of healthcare we have now, we need to make choices,'' she said, adding she sympathised with the cabinet.
Dr Patterson would not comment on a proposal by a former adviser to Mr Abbott as health minister, Terry Barnes, for a $6 fee to visit a doctor.
Mr Barnes' proposal, made in a submission to the government's Commission of Audit, has been widely criticised by doctors and health groups, who have warned it risks hurting the poorest and sickest, and overwhelming hospital emergency departments. Labor has vowed to fight the proposal, which it has branded a ''GP tax''.
Mr Barnes submission estimated his proposal would save $750 million over four years by reducing unnecessary GP visits.
Dr Patterson said while the public was more informed about what services were available, there was not enough awareness of the cost they carried to the public purse.
''What we must do is make people understand the cost of health,'' she said.
As health minister, Dr Patterson said she introduced a policy of printing the full cost of drugs on labels for those subsidised under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Many patients told her they were surprised to learn they were getting hundreds of dollars worth of medicines for a fraction of their cost.
''People didn't know how much they were being subsidised,'' she said. ''Even some of the doctors said, 'I can't believe how expensive that was', and they were prescribing it.
''The community needs to understand the multitude of pressures that are placed on health costs and it will not go backwards.''
Health Minister Peter Dutton said spiralling health costs would become ''unmanageable'' without change. Pointing to 120 per cent growth in the cost of Medicare over the past decade, Mr Dutton said some believed the rate of growth was ''unsustainable''.