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Monday, 24 March 2003
Page: 13313


Ms ELLIS (3:21 PM) —I rise to speak during this private members' business debate today on the private health insurance rebate. The Howard government's management—or should I say mismanagement—of private health insurance has been appalling. In the run-up to the 2001 election, Prime Minister Howard said that his government's policies would lead to reduced premiums and that private health insurance would be more affordable and attractive to consumers. We now know with absolute clarity that the government's policies in this area have led to the exact opposite: families and taxpayers are now paying a very high price. Since the election in 2001, the government has approved increases in premiums of more than 14 per cent. This year's increase of 7.4 per cent comes on top of last year's average increase of 6.9 per cent. As a result, many families with private health insurance will pay an extra $150 to $250 this year. Together with last year's increases and the decision by some funds to abandon discounts for regular and up-front payments, many Australian families will now be paying $300 to $500 more for their premiums than they did before the election in 2001.

The cost to taxpayers generally is also horrendous. The average increase in private health insurance premiums of 7.4 per cent will cost taxpayers more than $170 million each year, or $680 million over four years. That is on top of the $2.3 billion that the Commonwealth is already spending on the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate this year. For every dollar that premiums rise, taxpayers will contribute 30c. The Minister for Health and Ageing recently demonstrated the way in which the Howard government has developed inadequate policy. Last month Senator Patterson announced an agreement with the Private Health Insurance Association to phase out gym shoes, tents and golf clubs from the ancillary benefits which many health funds offer. This is an admission that the taxpayers' funds are being wasted on top-rate ancillary items. For example, in Senate estimates we discovered a case in which a woman claimed $400 from her health fund on the basis that her family's lifestyle was to relax listening to classical music and that this would result in them not having to go to the psychologist. After a complaint to the Ombudsman, the fund subsequently agreed to pay. It is difficult to see how a $120 federal government subsidy for the purchase of $400 worth of classical CDs can possibly be justified as a legitimate Commonwealth expenditure.

The Howard government also claimed that the private health insurance rebate would relieve pressure on the public health system. It is difficult to find anyone who agrees with this view. State premiers, state health ministers and health policy experts such as Professor Deeble, one of the architects of Medicare, argue that the introduction of the rebate has not solved the problem at all. On the contrary, when you look at the official statistics, it is clear that there has been a negligible fall of 0.1 per cent in public hospital separations since the introduction of the rebate. At the same time, we have seen the catastrophic collapse of bulk-billing and very many more presentations to emergency departments because of the collapse of bulk-billing—in respect of which, the federal government will not lift a finger. Professor Deeble has also argued that 60 per cent of the rebate goes to ancillaries or to people simply upgrading their private health insurance cover.

I would now like to turn to an issue which is very important to me in my role as shadow minister for ageing—that is, dental services. The statistics are frightening. People over 45 have an average of 20 missing, filled or damaged teeth. Disadvantaged Australians are twice as likely as the general population to have lost teeth and are less likely to visit a dentist. Half of all adults aged 65 and over who live in rural areas have no natural teeth. Fewer than 50 per cent of uninsured people visited a dental professional in the previous 12 months, and 14 per cent had not visited for five or more years. In 1996 the Howard government axed the Commonwealth dental program set up under Labor. Waiting lists increased 55 per cent in the years 1996 to 2000, and waiting times for non-emergency treatment are projected to reach 29 months in 2002-03. As copayments and waiting times increase, more teeth are extracted instead of filled. With fees for private dentistry as high as $200 an hour, many people rely on publicly funded dental clinics. These are now so pressed that they can only see people who are in severe pain. About 500,000 people are on waiting lists to receive public dental treatment. Only 11 per cent of those eligible for treatment receive it each year, yet the Howard government now spends over $350 million annually on subsidising private dental insurance. (Time expired)