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Wednesday, 25 March 1998
Page: 1611

Miss JACKIE KELLY (10:19 AM) —The Health Legislation Amendment Bill seeks to make private health insurance better value for money, a core plank of our government's reform of the health industry. It is a key issue in my electorate. Whenever I do any surveys of my electorate, health, unemployment and crime are the three major issues that keep recurring. Health is an issue that is very important in my electorate, an electorate which has a large number of women of child-bearing age and many young families. Health is very important for their peace of mind.

This bill seeks to stem the flow of people away from private health insurance, something which occurred throughout the period of the previous government. Before the previous government came to power, the percentage of people covered by private health insurance in Australia was 60 per cent. It has now dropped to 31 per cent and indications are that it is continuing to fall. It is very important that we staunch the flow of people away from private health insurance.

There are a number of initiatives that this government has put in place to do that. At the recent Premiers Conference, where a number of state premiers sought to deflect their own inadequacies in managing their state budget onto the federal government, it was shown that for every one per cent drop in the numbers of people leaving private health insurance it would cost the public sector an extra $83 million to cover that percentage drop.

Also, by the middle of this year we will be seeing the effects of the penalty on high income earners who do not take out private health insurance. By the end of the year we are hoping to see high income earners re-entering the private health insurance market because the tax penalty will make it worth their while. We will see either a levelling out of the rate of decline of people leaving private health insurance, or an increase in the rate for those joining private health insurance.

This is absolutely vital because, with 70 per cent of the population totally abdicating their responsibility for their own health care and saying they will take what government has to offer, waiting lists have grown. In New South Wales the waiting list for minor operations such as knee joints and varicose veins has increased. For things that are not urgent, the waiting lists extend for three or four years.

We are now up to date with technology in terms of allowing Medicare claims to be electronically lodged. That is a great improvement. It is keeping up with technology. It is important that government departments can collate all this paperwork from a doctor's surgery with Medicare records and so provide better service to the patient. A patient no longer has to travel between the doctor, the Medicare office and the post office in order to make a claim. This bill will enable continuous improvement to occur by using technology to keep the administrative costs of Medicare down.

It is important to note that, of the 7,000 people employed by the federal Department of Health and Family Services, not one of them touches a patient. Keeping administration costs down in the health department is the sort of thing that this government is looking to address.

We are also looking at various ways of closing the insurance gap. If you are privately insured you can get treatment in a private hospital but not all your bills are paid by private health insurance. That is one of the major complaints that my constituents make to me; that they have to pay the Medicare levy and then, if they accept that they are responsible for their own health care and pay for private health insurance, they are asked to pay the gap when they seek to make a claim. That is one thing that really upsets those who would seek to take responsibility for themselves and give themselves a choice in the timing, style and doctor they choose to use.

It is a move in the right direction. It has been very slow, given the tragic circumstances of the bleed away from private health cover that occurred under the previous government. That has certainly left us with a crisis at the moment. Looking at the figures from 1985 for the rough estimates of costs for education, health and defence, we were spending relatively the same amount, about $10 billion, on those three departments. Today, we spend $20 billion on health and we are still spending about $10 billion on defence and education. The costs in health are exponential. They are continuing to rise.

Recently in my electorate we were trialling telemedicine in a new way whereby, via an Internet line, you can actually operate with robotics on people at a remote site. We are actually looking at where someone in a car accident, or some other condition not of their choosing, needs to be repaired by a specialist. If it is out in the country, a specialist is not readily available. Once the instruments are set up, a Macquarie Street specialist can operate remotely, via telephone lines and Internet providers, to get someone back to full health. Although it is leading edge and worth exploring further, it is expensive.

The costs for health will continue to increase as our capabilities and the style and quality of through-life care that we demand increase. Previously when you got sick, if penicillin would not cure it, that was it. Today we have drugs costing enormous amounts of money over considerable periods of time to give people the very best that modern science can offer them. Health care is expensive and it will continue to be so, and I see it as increasing in expense.

It is therefore important that the demand or the call on government does not get to such a stage that it is to the detriment of our other departments, such as defence, education and social security. It is incredibly important that we encourage the majority of Australians who can afford to do so to take responsibility for their own health care. To do that, we must convince them that insurance is very real, very helpful and very easy.

The bill goes a long way to remedying some of the disastrous decisions of the previous government, which made an all-out concerted attack on the private health system and quite openly declared that a government hospital system as sole provider was the way to go. It is good to see that this legislation has got to this stage. We are hoping to see some cooperation from the opposition in supporting a number of the measures taken in this bill and to see a return to the levels of health insurance that were enjoyed in my parents' era. I commend the bill to the House.