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Thursday, 19 June 2003
Page: 17026

Ms JACKSON (1:02 PM) —I also rise to speak on the National Health Amendment (Private Health Insurance Levies) Bill 2003 and support the amendment moved by the member for Jagajaga, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I would like to make a few comments, understanding that the bill is largely technical in its terms and seeks to ensure that the levies that are administered by the Private Health Insurance Administration Council are able to be levied on the private health insurance funds. To that extent, I have no opposition to the bill in its current terms. However, I do not think you can let a piece of legislation dealing with the private health insurance industry pass without making comment on that area as it impacts on Australian families.

Everywhere you look in our health system today it seems that families are under financial pressure and are being asked to pay more, whether it is for a visit to a doctor who does not bulk-bill, with the average charge now being over $12 per visit, whether it is as a result of the government's proposal to increase the cost of essential medicines by 30 per cent, or whether it is in the area of private health insurance. We heard an announcement in March this year that the Howard government had approved a further average increase of some 7.4 per cent in the cost of private health insurance premiums, which was, frankly, a slap in the face to Australians with private health insurance—the same Australians who were told by the Prime Minister, John Howard, in the run-up to the last election that premiums would fall under his government. I will take time to quote, in particular, the comments that the Prime Minister made in Brisbane on 29 August 1996. In relation to private health insurance premiums, he said:

What I can give is an absolute guarantee that any change in future will be as a result of a decision taken at a political level in a way and in circumstances where we are satisfied that the rise is completely justified.

As we know, whenever the Prime Minister makes an absolute guarantee or says `never, ever', you can pretty well guarantee that the opposite will occur. Indeed, we saw last year that broken promise on health insurance, and now private health insurance companies are able to increase their premiums in accordance with the CPI without there being any consideration by government—or, indeed, any consideration of the decision at a political level at all—to determine whether the rise is completely justified. Before the election, the Prime Minister said that there would be `downward pressure' on premiums and that private health insurance would be `more affordable and attractive' to consumers. That is a direct quote from `Putting Australia's interests first', a policy document of the Liberal Party of Australia. He also said that the Howard government policies would lead to `reduced premiums', which is from their policy document `Heading in the right direction'.

Perhaps I can draw to the Prime Minister's attention that, contrary to those promises, his policies appear to have had a direct and opposite impact on the rates of private health insurance. Indeed, since his election in 2001, the government has improved increases in premiums of more than 14 per cent. This year's increase of 7.4 per cent from April came 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 alone. 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. As I said, this is quite contrary to the notion of any downward pressure on private health insurance premiums for Australian families.

It is not only Australian families with young children that I am concerned about. A particular group in my electorate who suffer the impact of these increases in private health insurance premiums are self-funded retirees—many of whom have worked hard and saved over their working lives to achieve a reasonable standard of living in their retirement. Not one of them could have predicted the escalation of costs in the area of private health insurance. Indeed, quite the contrary— prior to the 2001 election they were promised by the government that specific policies would be put in place which would keep downward pressure on private health insurance premiums.

As I said, I am very concerned about this group. They often have a fixed level of income, which has already been affected by things such as interest rates in the private fund market, and they are the ones who are particularly feeling the costs. Many of them are quite confused as to exactly what policies the government intends to put in place that will eventually see the cost of insurance premiums fall. Having to pay $300 to $500 more for premiums since 2001 is a significant dent in the incomes of those people. I urge the government to re-examine its policies in this area to see whether or not some steps can be taken to decrease the pressure on Australian families and, in particular, the pressure on self-funded retirees.

I note that in each budget submission made by the Association of Independent Retirees this area has received some discussion and a number of recommendations have been made to government—none of which appear to have been picked up or implemented. I think the time is long overdue for the government to give consideration to them. It is not just those people in private health insurance funds who are bearing the brunt of increases in premiums; we know also that taxpayers, as a group, are being slugged for these increases through the private health insurance rebate. The average increase in private health insurance premiums of 7.4 per cent, which was announced in April this year, will cost taxpayers more than $170 million each year. That is on top of the $2.3 billion that the Commonwealth already spent on the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate in the last financial year. For every dollar that premiums rise, taxpayers will contribute 30 per cent.

Once again the Howard government has used the nation's proper concern for matters of national security and international relations to try and hide these bad news stories about the additional financial burden families will have to bear if they elect to maintain their private health insurance. You will recall that it was on the anniversary of September 11 in 2002 that the Howard government announced that private health premiums would automatically rise by the CPI every year without the need for government approval—specifically dishonouring the Prime Minister's absolute guarantee, and honest guarantee, that his government would approve all future private health insurance premium increases. The increases in private health insurance premiums which took effect from April this year mean that Australian families and Australian taxpayers have again copped it in the neck.

I note the comments of a number of speakers from the government in this debate. They have taken the opportunity to have a go at what they perceive as the opposition policies in this area of private health insurance. I want to respond to a couple of comments made by the member for Makin. She points out that, as a consequence of government policies, some 40 per cent of Australian families are now in private health insurance. She made the extraordinary claim that, as a consequence of this particular change in policy by the government, we have seen pressure taken off our public health system. I would urge the member for Makin to visit any hospital in Australia and demonstrate that as a matter of fact. Quite the contrary, what we are seeing is the increase in costs of private health insurance. Many families, particularly low-paid families, as well as pensioners and self-funded retirees, are being squeezed out of the private health insurance market. More importantly, there has been a decline in the rates of bulk-billing, combined with a shortage of GPs, particularly in outer metropolitan areas. What we are seeing is an increase in pressure on our public health system.

I urge the member for Makin to attend the emergency department of her nearest public hospital to actually examine what is happening in real life in terms of the pressure on our public hospital system. None of the government's policies in this area are having the impact of either making private health insurance more affordable or taking the pressure off the public hospital system. What we are seeing is an increasing number of ordinary Australians attending public hospitals because of their inability to properly access health care, and particularly GPs, in their local area. That is why I urge the government to reconsider its policies in this particular area.

I think this has also been a convenient opportunity for government members to suggest that Labor's policy is to remove the private health insurance rebate and therefore slug those 40 per cent of Australians who are still able to afford some sort of private health insurance cover with an additional burden. I might clarify for the member for Makin that, indeed, the opposition are considering the application of the private health insurance rebate, primarily because it is not working and because it is slugging Australian taxpayers an extraordinary sum of money each year. I can also say—if the government members care to listen to the comments of the members of the opposition—that the very clear undertaking we have given is that any changes in policy we intend to make in the private health care area will be directed towards taking the pressure off Australian families and that, in terms of their out-of-pocket expenses, they will be no worse off under any Labor Party policy directed at the health care area.

In the Leader of the Opposition's budget reply speech, a very good alternative policy position has been put before the Australian people in the area of Medicare. It is one that will look at not only bolstering our public health system but also ensuring that our GPs are able to continue to offer bulk-billing services in their practices. If you speak to GPs about the biggest problem facing them, you discover that it is that the rebate paid to them by the federal government is too low for them to be able to continue to afford to offer universal access through bulk-billing for their patients.

I do not want to continue the debate in this area unnecessarily, but I think that, before people get up and simply put a position based on ideology and rhetoric, one ought to examine the facts. The fact is that the cost of private health insurance continues to climb by an extraordinary amount each year. What we have seen since the election in 2001 is ordinary Australian families being required to pay between $300 and $500 more each year for their basic private health insurance cover, contrary to the promises that were made by the government prior to the election. We are also seeing a failure in the sense that this has not taken any pressure off the public hospital system. I urge the government to re-examine its policies in the health care area and try to look at a way in which we can ensure not only access for all Australians to our health care system but also affordable access that does not constantly slug either families or taxpayers. Having said that, I reiterate my support for the amendments moved by the member for Jagajaga.