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Wednesday, 25 September 2002
Page: 4848

Senator MARK BISHOP (2:00 PM) — My question is to the Minister for Health and Ageing, Senator Patterson. Can the minister confirm the report in the Courier-Mail last week that cabinet has decided to allow veterans with the gold card to take out private health insurance with no penalty for being over 30 years of age, thereby exempting veterans from the Lifetime Health Cover rules? Is this unannounced cabinet decision an admission that the gold card no longer guarantees free private health care and choice of doctor, and an acknowledgment that veterans may need to take out personal private health cover?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —I thank the honourable Senator for his question. There were questions about the veterans gold card a couple of weeks ago in the chamber and I answered them by saying that the overwhelming majority of doctors are continuing to accept the repatriation gold card for veteran patients. The Labor Party have been undermining the gold card. I do not know whether they have a policy of withdrawing the gold card. I do not know what their policy is on private health insurance. Mr Smith will not make a categorical statement about whether the private health insurance rebate will remain. They refuse to make that statement.

We have brought in a range of measures to address the issue of lifetime cover. I would need to double-check what the honourable senator has said. I know that we have extended it to migrants who come to Australia. They have a 12-month period. I just cannot remember—there is an enormous amount in the portfolio to remember—the issues surrounding veterans and the veterans gold card. I will get back to him at the end of question time to confirm if that is the case. I just cannot remember. I know we extended it to migrants who arrive in Australia and are over 30. We thought it was inappropriate to penalise them because they did not have the opportunity beforehand, so they have a 12-month period from when they arrive to take out private health insurance.

Labor ran this scare campaign about the gold card and veterans. June Healy, the National President of the War Widows Guild of Australia, said she had written to Minister Danna Vale saying that Mark Bishop's media release on the extent of specialists refusing to treat veterans with gold cards `tends to inflame the situation'. There is what one of the stakeholders is saying—that what Labor are doing is inflaming the situation.

John Ryan, the National President of TPI Federation and a fearless advocate for veterans' rights, was reported in the West Australian as saying, `The problem was not serious.' Labor run around scaring people saying that the situation is worse than it really is. As I said, I cannot remember, and I defy anybody on the other side to remember, every aspect of the portfolio. I know that we extended it to migrants. I will check and get back to the honourable senator as soon as question time finishes.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question arising from the minister's answer. Is the minister aware of the government's admission through questions on notice that at least 75 specialists have formally resigned from the gold card scheme, and that in the last three months veterans have been reimbursed for doctors' consultations on 477 occasions, in large part because their doctors have refused the gold card? What are the implications for the health care of veterans, and when will the Howard government advise veterans that they should be making alternative arrangements in line with the cabinet's unannounced decision? To assist the minister, I seek leave to table a circular from the Department of Health and Ageing addressing the issue I raised in the first part of my question.

Leave granted.

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —Here we go again: Labor are inflaming the situation, which is what the stakeholders say is happening. We are aware that some medical specialists are unhappy with the level of fees for services to the veteran community and Veterans' Affairs is currently discussing the matter with the AMA. It would not be appropriate for me to comment further. However, Labor should be supporting the veterans. They did not extend it and they did not give a rebate for private health insurance to anybody, including the million pensioners who now get the rebate and are able to afford private health insurance. They left private health insurance running at a level which was totally unsustainable. I said this in answer to an earlier question on the veterans gold card: if a veteran is unable to get a service and is having difficulty, the Department of Veterans' Affairs will locate a treating specialist and DVA will arrange an alternate specialist—somebody who will actually look after them at a rate that does not include a gap. DVA is aware that some specialists are not doing it. They will look after veterans and ensure that they get the service. (Time expired)