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Wednesday, 10 September 2003
Page: 19782

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (10:19 AM) —I also rise to support the Health Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2003. As previous speakers have indicated, this bill contains amendments relating to two areas in the health portfolio. The first of these is amendments to the Health and Other Services Compensation Scheme that relate to ascertaining an amount of compensation. The bill clarifies in the Health and Other Services (Compensation) Act 1995 the circumstances under which Medicare and residential care benefits paid to compensation claimants can be recovered. It is not surprising that the opposition support this bill. It is fair to say that it will go some way to improving matters in the health area.

However, in my own electorate there are broader concerns about the health area. I recently surveyed a large proportion of my constituents on their concerns about the provision of health services—in particular, the provision of Medicare, access to bulk-billing and the rising cost of private health insurance. With respect to private health insurance, the response across the board indicated—

Ms Worth —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I draw your attention to the fact that we are not debating legislation about private health insurance or about bulk-billing but about two quite specific issues important to the health portfolio.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The bill is a very narrow bill. I remind the member for Burke to stay within the confines of the bill.

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —It is a narrow bill. As I have said, I indicate our support for the bill and my support for earlier speakers.

Mr Adams —A bit touchy, I thought.

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —A little defensive when clearly we are getting up to support the government's bill. I am making the point that there is merit in the way in which the government has gone about this matter. It is certainly an improvement on the current arrangements. But it is fair to say that issues more broadly affecting my constituents should be mentioned in relation to this bill or to any other bill that goes to health matters. Whilst I am sure that my own constituents would generally agree that there is support for this bill, I raise concerns about whether they can receive decent health services in the electorate. I would not expect the government to disallow my constituents the right to have those views aired, even when speaking to this matter.

In relation to this bill, the Federal Court recently ruled that, because the exact amount of compensation payable was not fixed or ascertainable at the time of the judgment or settlement, the Health and Other Services (Compensation) Act did not apply. The amendments, therefore, ensure that the Commonwealth can identify and recover from successful claimants the debt owed to it under those circumstances. That is partly the reason for my support and the opposition's support in relation to this matter.

It is also fair to say, as indicated by earlier speakers, that the bill makes changes to legislative provisions covering the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register. Again, these are some very important matters. I would be very happy to convey to my constituents that not in every circumstance does the government get it wrong in relation to health.

Mr Adams —Most of the time, though.

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —Most of the time, unfortunately. It is probably true to say that, in these narrowly confined areas, they actually got something right. But the fact is that, broadly speaking, there are some critical concerns in my electorate about the provision of health services. As I indicated earlier, I sent out a survey to a significant number of constituents in my electorate, and they have responded to that very heavily—which I suppose shows the interest that Australians generally have regarding health services in this country. I am sure my electorate is no different from any other in that regard. Their concerns are that there are problems with health services in terms of them gaining access to services for their families, and this has been highlighted in the survey itself. In fact, I can refer to a number of comments made by some of those respondents to the survey in relation to some of those matters. For example, Mr Stewart wrote back to me and said:

As a health industry employee I am very concerned about the lack of services within the Macedon Ranges/Sunbury area. I am employed in the Emergency Dept. of a busy Northern Hospital which I see becoming busier and unable to cope with the demand which is directly attributed to several factors. 1/ Reductions in bulk billing 2/ Absence of medical services after hours 3/ Inadequate planning of health services ...

Clearly here we have a health professional responding to a survey and indicating that bulk-billing has a direct impact upon the ever-burdened emergency services at public hospitals. Another constituent indicated:

I thought private health cover was going to stay affordable but what I am considering is withdrawing and putting the money into an account for when or if I am sick.

That is another testimony to the fact that the increases in the cost of private health insurance are getting to the point where people are questioning its value. These increases have defied the undertakings by the government that they would ensure they would not occur. They have occurred. They have occurred in excess of CPI increases over the last number of years, notwithstanding the promises made by the Prime Minister and this government in relation to this area. It is another example of pressure placed upon families in my electorate. Another constituent, Mr Consiglie from Lancefield, a regional community in my electorate, writes:

As a family we are in a “catch 22” situation. We have always had private Health Insurance and with a few experiences in the Public Hospital situation feel there is no choice but to have cover, but it is very expensive & the increases keep occurring and wages are not going up!

The Summers family writes:

I think we should have access to Bulk Billing in our area—

which is in Gisborne—

The cost of seeing a doctor has increased to the point of not going to the doctor.

Ms Caroline Gabayer from Woodend writes:

We can not afford private health insurance, that is why as a young family, trying to pay a mortgage & make ends meet, living from week to week, medicare is so important, to have the peace of mind that our children will be cared for in a time of need, and not treated as second class citizens. We are tax payers, as such are entitled to such services. Our parents who made these changes come about are now in their old age are being abandoned by the current day government, who are more interested in looking after their retirement fund.

That was from another concerned citizen of my electorate. So a number of concerns have been raised by constituents in my electorate. Perhaps one of the most telling is from Jenny Svendson of Macedon, who writes in relation to the survey:

My concern is even the private hospital is being affected by the dollar. Sunbury Private closing its facility for maternal health services and many non surgical stays have affected us. We'll now rely on Kyneton public which puts pressure on the public system. It is also becoming expensive to visit the local doctor. I recently broke my foot and my son had pneumonia on 3 different occasions. All the visits and x-rays became very expensive. On the first occasion when my son had pneumonia, I didn't take him to the doctors for 4 days because I didn't have the money. I didn't know at the time he had pneumonia or I would have borrowed the money from someone. But luckily he was okay.

These are a range of responses coming from constituents in my electorate concerned about the ever-burdening increases to the private health system—to the point where they are questioning its value and, indeed, questioning whether the operators in the private health industry are putting, almost in every instance, profits above the care of patients. That is the sort of concern that would, I think, be shared across the country for recipients of private health insurance.

Clearly the other issue is that access to bulk-billing in my electorate is falling. In 12 months, access to bulk-billing fell from 71 per cent to 59 per cent—a 12 per cent drop in 12 months. Bulk-billing is freefalling in my electorate, and I do not think I am alone in that problem. I do not really see any effort by this government to address that problem. While a statistic of 12 per cent does not necessarily excite the interests of everybody or really put a face to the problem, I am being confronted daily with concerns from families that they are not able to look after, in particular, their children as well as they would like. They are now even gambling with their children's health by making judgments as to whether their children are sick enough to be taken to a doctor, given their inability or great difficulty in paying an up-front fee or paying a very high gap fee when visiting their local doctor. That is a major concern.

Returning to the bill before us—as I am sure the members opposite would want me to do—as I have indicated, I think this bill is an improvement. I think the opposition is right in supporting this bill. The opposition will always support a government bill if it is going to improve the health system. We find ourselves in opposition to many of the government's health policies because, by and large, we have a government whose health policies are anti-Medicare and anti bulk-billing and a government which has an obsession with privatising the whole health system—which would happen if the Prime Minister had his way.

The Prime Minister has been on the record for most of his parliamentary career as wanting to destroy Medicare. He knows he cannot do it up-front, so he wants it to wither on the vine—that is his intention. He thinks by creating problems with access to Medicare perhaps people will turn away from the system altogether. But I think the government has found that, rather than being critical of Medicare or the system of Medicare, the people of Australia are critical of a government who is allowing it to die. If the government wants to stay in power, it would do well to turn its mind to looking after the health of all Australians, in particular those Australians whose access to health care is very much dependent upon a decent public health system—a system that will provide the capacity for families to be treated and for parents not to have to make in some cases life and death decisions about their children because of the impost that occurs in simply visiting a doctor. That impost has risen under this government since 1996 and access to bulk-billing has dropped dramatically since 1996. In particular, in my own electorate, access to bulk-billing has dropped in a huge way over the last 12 months. I commend the bill, but I do have grave concerns about the more fundamental areas of health care that this government has, it would appear, knowingly and intentionally neglected.