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Tuesday, 29 June 1999
Page: 6745

Senator GIBBS —My question is to Senator Herron, the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Aged Care. Is the minister aware that, of the 31,800 new health insurance policies taken out in the first quarter of this year, only 2,712 were for full cover? Is the minister concerned that there is a rapidly growing number of people with exclusionary policies with large up-front payments who are taking out the cheapest possible insurance simply to avoid paying the Medicare surcharge?

Senator HERRON (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) —Madam President, it is the old ALP question again: force everybody into something—compulsion. We are about freedom of choice. If people want to take out the cover that they so desire, so be it. We are not forcing them to do anything. The Labor Party wants to socialise medicine. That is all it is interested in: socialising medicine and forcing people to take compulsory cover. We have set out a comprehensive and strategic approach to allow people freedom of choice so that we can maintain the balance between the public hospital system and the private hospital system. If people take up-front cover—they might go for cover under which they will accept the first $1,000 of cost of their hospital care—so be it. That is called freedom. The Labor Party would not understand that. It is called freedom of choice. They can take out whichever cover is available.

The government has adopted this approach so that it can maintain that balance. All the Labor Party is interested in is a public hospital system with no freedom of choice for Australians to take out whatever cover they desire. If people are taking out that cover, so be it; they are entitled to do that. It is a competitive market. We are moving towards a system where we will have a supplemented private health sector that is fair, affordable, customer friendly and good value for money. It is up to the individual to decide which cover they take out. The introduction of a lifetime health cover scheme, the 30 per cent rebate, the pursuit of reforms to address the gap and the development of coordinated care in the private sector are all part of a cohesive approach to address these objectives. Where is the Labor Party's health policy? Madam President, there is silence from the other side—a policy vacuum. I accused them of trying to socialise health care, and they all shouted in agreement. I asked them what their policy was—silence; dead silence.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Herron, I would point out that to shout back at you would be disorderly.

Senator HERRON —It is fairly obvious that what we are doing is part of a comprehensive strategy to maintain that balance between the private and the public hospital systems and give people a choice dependent on their financial resources. We need to encourage young people back into the system because of the community rating principle, which we support, and we will continue to do so. But obviously, with the ageing population, there have to be measures taken to keep that quantum of money going into the private hospital system at a high level; otherwise it goes bust, and it is not our intention for that to occur. If people are exercising their freedom of choice to take out this level of private health insurance, we welcome them in, because the alternative is that they would be totally reliant on the public hospital system, which is already overcrowded and run down by the 13 years that the Labor Party was in power—leaving us with a system that will go further down the drain unless active measures are taken.

Senator Faulkner —You weren't reading your brief. You've been told not to do that.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Faulkner, you are behaving in a disorderly fashion.

Senator GIBBS —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, if the Medicare surcharge artificially boosts the number of people with private health insurance, how will this relieve pressure on the public hospital system, given that these people will still use a public hospital if they get sick because they face a large front-end payment plus all the gap repayments?

Senator HERRON (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) —Obviously Senator Gibbs does not know the quantum of money that goes into the hospital system under the government sector. Private hospitals get $295 million out of each Commonwealth budget. Public hospitals, on the other hand, get $5,181 million. So the premise on which that supplementary question is asked is false. The other balance, of course, goes into the repatriation hospitals—$16 million a year. The quantum is $5,181 million compared to $295 million. So to allege that somehow this tiny little change is going to make the public hospital system grind to a halt is false. I suggest that Senator Gibbs go back to the questions committee and get somebody in the Labor Party to spend a little time trying to understand the hospital system of this country. I will nominate Senator Chris Evans. He is obviously on the rise and trying to make a name for himself.