Wednesday, 31 May 2006
Health Legislation Amendment (Private Health Insurance) Bill 2006
That this bill be now read a second time.
The Health Legislation Amendment (Private Health Insurance) Bill 2006 will amend the National Health Act 1953 to improve consumer protection in private health by widening the powers of the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman.
The Private Health Insurance Ombudsman investigates and resolves complaints about private health insurance and is an unofficial umpire in dispute resolution within the private health insurance industry.
An opposition member interjecting—
Government members interjecting—
If you want to be in here all day, we can do that—on the basis that you have ruled her in breach of standing orders 89 and 90. I do point out, Mr Speaker, that, while clearly the member for Lalor was in breach of standing orders 89 and 90, the member for Lalor used precisely the same words in withdrawing as the Leader of the House did in parliament last Thursday. In fact, Mr Speaker, you ruled yesterday on page 5 of Hansard the following—
Mr Speaker, you ruled:
Given the withdrawals by the Leader of the House, the motion was a valid motion.
Why is it, Mr Speaker, that you ruled that way on the withdrawal and on the words used by the Leader of the House, ‘If I have offended grubs, I withdraw unconditionally,’ yet you ruled differently for the member for Lalor?
Further to the point of order, Mr Speaker: you will find that an examination of pages 33 to 39 of the House of Representatives Hansard of Thursday, 25 May 2006 indicates that on a number of occasions the Leader of the House was asked to withdraw unconditionally. For six pages of Hansard, he refused to do so in defiance of the Speaker—
The member for Grayndler will resume his seat. I will make two points. First of all, I did not rule yesterday. I made the point in response to a question from the member for Lalor as to where I would rule, and I have ruled today in accordance with the standing orders and House of Representatives Practice.
On the point of order, Mr Speaker: yesterday you made a statement about two withdrawals, one last withdrawal by the Leader of the House, which was entirely in order, but in no way in that statement did you distance yourself from a disorderly withdrawal or a withdrawal with qualifications—and I regret that—and today, for the very same act, where the Leader of the House was not pulled up last Thursday, you have suspended the Manager of Opposition Business for 24 hours.
Mr Speaker, I refer to your ruling of yesterday, where you said:
Given the withdrawals by the Leader of the House, the motion was a valid motion. I also note that the House endorsed the ruling by the Deputy Speaker to this effect, by negativing the motion of dissent from that ruling.
I ask you to reflect on what has occurred this morning and what occurred yesterday and, so that the parliament can move on, that this be taken in the form of a question so that you can report back after question time on the nature of exactly how withdrawals will be considered to be effective. If not, every time the Minister for Health and Ageing gets to his feet, it is possible that this motion will be moved.
The member for Grayndler will not debate the point of order or question it. I have allowed him to raise a point with me. I am happy to look at the points that he has raised, but I make the point that, when a member is asked to withdraw, they must withdraw without reservation.
Order! I made it clear in my statement to the House yesterday the way I would be dealing with this and the way that the House dealt with it last week. There is nothing further to add. I will look at what the member for Grayndler said and consider a response as is appropriate.
The Private Health Insurance Ombudsman independently investigates and resolves complaints about private health insurance and is an unofficial umpire in dispute resolutions at all levels within the private health insurance industry.
I did. Currently, the ombudsman’s power is limited in relation to investigation and mediation of disputes. He receives and investigates complaints but only has formal jurisdiction to resolve them in respect of disputes with funds. This frustrates consumers, who have no clear alternative path of redress.
The private health sector is a partnership between health funds and health care providers, including hospitals, doctors and ancillary service providers. It is not appropriate to impose close scrutiny on one part of the sector—namely, the funds—while not applying the same rigor consistently to the providers of services for which the funds pay benefits to their members.
This bill therefore aims to ensure that the ombudsman will be able to effectively represent consumer interests arising from all aspects of their privately insured experience. Currently, the ombudsman’s powers centre on complaints and investigations relating to the activities of health funds. The bill expands the responsibilities of the ombudsman to include receiving complaints by, and in relation to, health care providers and health insurance brokers. This effectively imposes the same obligations on all parties involved in a privately insured episode, instead of placing accountability solely on health funds.
The ombudsman will not intervene in matters of clinical care: that remains—and must remain—the province of registration boards and state health care complaints commissioners.
The bill also expands the types of documents of which the ombudsman can require production, such as health fund, health care provider and broker records.
The ombudsman will have a power to compel parties to a dispute to undertake mediation where he deems it appropriate. This may include deadlocks in contract disputes between health funds and providers.
The ombudsman can currently make recommendations about the practices and procedures of health funds. This bill expands this power to the practices and procedures of health care providers and brokers.
Penalties will be included for parties, other than consumers, who fail to comply with matters relating to providing records, participating in mediation and reporting to the ombudsman. These penalties are in line with the penalties that currently exist in the National Health Act 1953 and will provide support to the ombudsman in relation to complaints and investigations. Furthermore, the bill ensures that the ombudsman and the staff of his office are protected from civil and personal liability as a result of their proper exercising of the increased powers.
Peak bodies of the private health industry, including the Australian Health Insurance Association, the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Private Hospitals Association were consulted in the development of the bill, and I am advised that all support the proposed changes.
The bill also includes a minor amendment to the Private Health Insurance Incentives Act 1998 that applies to the 2005-06 financial year and later financial years.
This is an administrative amendment that extends the time Medicare Australia—the former Health Insurance Commission—has to provide annual data to the Australian Taxation Office on the private health insurance rebates from 90 days to 120 days. The change will improve administration of the rebates and will not disadvantage those consumers who claim their rebates through their tax return. This proposed change follows a recommendation of the Australian National Audit Office.
I commend the bill to the House.
Debate (on motion by Mr Gavan O’Connor) adjourned.