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Thursday, 11 March 2004
Page: 21347


Senator HARRIS (11:06 AM) —I am going to use a cliche in responding to the requests for amendment to the Health Legislation Amendment (Medicare) Bill 2003 that have been moved by me, Senator Lees, Senator Murphy and Senator Harradine. This cliche is `comprehensively screwed'. If we want to have a look at what is being comprehensively screwed, then we should look at the figures. This is the absolute classic example of what you can do with figures.

Let us have a look at the proposal being put forward by the Labor Party, the Democrats and the Greens—that is, a $5 payment right across the board. Let us have a close look at the outcome of that. Senator Cherry has given us some examples of bulk-billing rates in Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Townsville. But he fails to admit and disclose to the chamber that in those areas there are some extremely high-volume bulk-billing clinics. When the figures from those high-usage clinics are put into state averages, you arrive at the figures that Senator Cherry has put forward. If you look at the figures provided by the department, you will see that, if the $5 payment were made right across the board, more than 80 per cent of the funds would go to those high-volume bulk-billing clinics that already have rates above 80 per cent. But Senator Cherry does not tell you that. He gives you bulk-billing figures that are brought down by state averages.

What has been proposed by the government in conjunction with One Nation, Senator Harradine, Senator Lees and Senator Murphy is a lifting of the bulk-billing rates to 70-plus per cent not just in Queensland but in every state. So my comment about comprehensively screwing figures is very apt. When you want to you can get them to provide the answer you want. That leads me to the next point that we need to raise. There has been some very skilful use of answers given in the chamber last night. I quote directly from the Hansard.Senator Allison asked the minister:

Is it possible for me to ask at the same time about the inflationary—

I emphasise the word `inflationary'—

assumptions that were built in for the $300 and $700 thresholds for GPs and specialists?

The answer provided by Senator Ian Campbell was:

The first half of the question related to inflationary assumptions. The assumptions that were made, broadly, were that bulk-billing rates will be maintained and that the gap will be maintained in broad and general terms.

I do not want to put words in Senator Ian Campbell's mouth but he is clearly saying that, when the department assessed the inflationary tendency of the increase in bulk-billing, the government was conservative in its assumptions and did not add into that increases in bulk-billing. The answer from Senator Ian Campbell was specifically to the inflationary expectation in relation to the $300 and $700 levels. I now move to Senator Nettle's question to the minister:

I ask the minister about his previous answer to Senator Allison. He said that the assumption is that bulk-billing will not increase. Is that the assumption for the government's model of the future of public health in this country—Medicare and bulk-billing? Are we basing it on an assumption that there will be no increase in bulk-billing rates?

Here we have a very skilful use of an answer. The minister gave the department's assessment of inflationary tendencies with the $300 and $700 levels, and it is being misused to create an assumption that the government does not support bulk-billing. Nothing could be further from the truth. You will see from the Hansard that the answer was given in relation to the inflationary assumptions. But Senator Nettle's question—and I will do a little speculation here—in all probability is intended to be used in an election period. And there we have the answer.

The requests that we have put forward are to reduce the government's original position on the $500 and $1,000 thresholds. We looked at the additional people who would benefit from that and, by the year 2007, that will be as high as 490,000. As was said here last evening, the moment this bill is given royal assent, 33,000 people who have already reached the $300 safety net will immediately be reimbursed 80 per cent of their out-of-pocket expenses.

For a person or a family who has had out-of-pocket expenses in the vicinity of $1,000, they are left with $700 out-of-pocket expenses after the $300 threshold is removed. The moment this bill is given royal assent, they will receive a rebate of $560. This is what the government and the senators on the crossbenches who support this legislation have taken into consideration. We are here to help people in need. We are not here to see 80 per cent of the additional funds go into bulk-billing when that will not increase those levels across the states.