Tuesday, 2 June 2009
Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill 2009; Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives (Medicare Levy Surcharge) Bill 2009; Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives (Medicare Levy Surcharge — Fringe Benefits) Bill 2009
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the very important Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill 2009 and related bills before the House. We have a health system that depends on the interface between the private system and the public system. Without the private sector, the public system could not cope with the demands on its services. Without the public system, there would be no safety net to ensure that people got the medical care that they needed regardless of their ability to pay. We have a system that uses a combination of price signals and waiting lists to regulate its operation. One fallacy in our health system—and there are many who believe it—is that health is a free service. Nothing could be further from the truth. Health is not a free service. It is a very expensive service. It is a huge drain on the budgets of our federal and state governments. It is a service that is delivered by highly skilled and highly trained professionals, at great cost to the community.
The reality is that the members opposite have a pathological hatred of private health insurance. This legislation represents a preliminary step on their quest to dismantle the private health insurance system. They want to ensure equity. They want to ensure equity by herding everybody into the public system, a system that just would not cope under the load. It may sound illogical, but that is Labor ideology at work—we will get equity by creating a system that will ultimately collapse under the load! In my electorate of Cowper some 32,900—or 35 per cent of those in the electorate—have private health insurance. Cowper is not a wealthy electorate. It is one of the lower socioeconomic status electorates in the country, yet 35 per cent of people in the electorate have elected to take out private health insurance. Many people come up to me and ask, ‘What is going to happen as a result of this legislation?’ They say: ‘I can’t afford to not be privately insured. The hospital waiting lists are too long. But I can’t afford to pay more for premiums either.’ They feel very concerned by this legislation. They are very worried by the government’s agenda to wind back private health insurance. This legislation represents a preliminary step along that road.
The Rudd government is slugging people with private health insurance to help pay for its reckless spending. All those retaining their private health insurance will ultimately pay higher premiums, and those dependent on the public system will face longer waiting lists. Those earning over $75,000 will face higher premiums and a loss of their rebate. As I said, for the uninsured as well this legislation is bad news because the length of the waiting list will increase.
As the previous speaker said, the reality is that many people take out private health insurance despite being on low incomes. This legislation represents an instalment on one of Mr Rudd’s broken promises. I note that he wrote to the AHIA on 20 November 2007 and said:
Both my Shadow Minister for Health, Nicola Roxon, and I have made clear on many occasions this year that Federal Labor is committed to retaining the existing private health insurance rebates, including the 30 per cent general rebate and the 35 and 40 per cent rebates for older Australians.
Mr Rudd, in the Prime Minister’s courtyard on 25 February 2008, said:
The private health insurance rebate remains unchanged and will remain unchanged.
Roxon told the Age on 24 February 2009:
The government is firmly committed to retaining the existing private health insurance rebates.
But the reality is that Labor hates private health insurance and is looking for a way to finance its spiralling debt, and cutting out private health insurance rebates is one way of achieving that. The coalition put forward an alternative proposal which would retain the current arrangement but fund it through an increase in the tobacco excise. This would have ultimately meant improved health outcomes, less expenditure on health care for those who smoke and reduced consumption of tobacco. It was a win-win solution. But, as always with this Prime Minister, his way is the only way. He has been proven so wrong many times before.
This government and the state governments are not honest with public hospital waiting lists. We see hospital waiting lists lengthening—and what do they do? They disguise them. Through sleight of hand, they make waiting lists shorter than they appear. We have all heard from doctors who say that they know what their waiting lists are, yet the actual waiting lists appearing on the hospital records are far less. Hospital waiting lists are being disguised through sleight of hand. Hospital waiting lists are being disguised to cloud the true position of the health system. It is absolutely outrageous.
We are coming up to a milestone because on 30 June we get to assess the Prime Minister on one of his promises. The promise he made—a very solemn promise it was—was that the buck stopped with him on health. This legislation is not a very good precursor to that day where he is actually dismantling the private health insurance system through the measures in these bills, but the buck stops with him on health. We will be holding him to account for that promise. I do not have to look very far in my electorate to find many examples of where our health system is failing. The Mid North Coast Area Health Service is in the process of sacking 400 staff. I do not know how you can possibly maintain and improve health services by sacking 400 staff in an area where the population is ageing and growing. It was interesting to hear the head of the Mid North Coast Area Health Service, Chris Crawford, make the Orwellian claim that it was going to deliver more efficient services and more procedures by sacking 400 staff. I ask the members opposite and the members of this House to question that statement in light of the Prime Minister’s promise that on 30 June the buck stopped with him on health. How can you deliver better services, more procedures and more efficient health if you are going to sack 400 staff from the health service? It is absolutely outrageous.
The smaller hospitals in my electorate—the hospitals in Maclean, Macksville, Bellingen and Kempsey—are invariably concerned for their future. The smaller hospitals are always concerned that they are under pressure to downgrade services. We had a situation at Maclean where the Mid North Coast Area Health Service was attempting to sell off land, the funds from which were going to be diverted to another hospital out of the Maclean area. It is absolutely outrageous—a hospital under pressure and under threat of downgrading services. The people in the Bellingen community are equally concerned, as are the people in the Macleay Valley with regard to the Kempsey hospital. The Kempsey hospital is another example of a hospital under pressure of having its services downgraded. It is a hospital whose infrastructure dates back not to the 20th century but to the 19th century so old are some of the buildings. It is infrastructure that cannot cope with the needs of 21st century medicine. It is infrastructure that has been sadly neglected by Labor in state government. It is infrastructure that deserves to be upgraded if the Prime Minister is going to meet his promise that health services are going to be miraculously up to scratch by 30 June—or the buck stops with him.
We will be interested to see what the Prime Minister concludes on that fateful day. We will be interested to see what he says to the Australian people. We will be interested to see whether he is going to keep his promise, because I sadly doubt it. I feel that 30 June will come and it will go and we will have no resolution from this government or the Prime Minister as to whether health services are up to scratch. I think one thing will become clear: this Prime Minister will shirk his responsibility that the buck stops with him.
In conclusion, I say that this is very much a retrograde step for the people of Australia. Placing more pressure on the public hospital system cannot be good for health outcomes. Everywhere you go, the public hospital system is buckling under the strain. Everywhere you go and talk to people, they are struggling to pay their private health insurance premiums. This measure is only going to lengthen hospital waiting lists. This measure is only going to increase the pressure on the public system. This measure is only going to push up the cost of private health insurance for people who are struggling to pay it. I certainly oppose this legislation and the government should be condemned for introducing such a retrograde step to our health system.