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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20534

Mrs DRAPER (4:20 PM) —As the chair of the government's backbench policy committee on health and ageing I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this debate. Let there be no mistake: Medicare is safe with the Howard government. The health and wellbeing of Australian families is the No. 1 priority of this government. For the opposition to indulge in political games on this issue just shows how shallow, policy free and policy bankrupt they have become. During the member for Lalor's recent excursion, there was not one hint of Labor's possible alternative health policy in this most important MPI—not a single skerrick, not one policy outline, just personal attacks on the Minister for Health and Ageing. I guess that is their new health policy. That is the new health policy they will be taking to the next federal election: personal attacks on the health minister.

It is the Labor Party which is threatening to destroy the fabric of Australia's health system by refusing to support the retention of the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate. I regularly consult my constituents in Makin on all matters of importance, and their support for the government's 30 per cent health rebate has been overwhelming. Since the Howard government introduced the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate in January 1999, an extra three million Australians have taken out private health cover. Today, almost nine million Australians have private health insurance. Private health cover allows Australians the freedom to choose their own doctor and hospital, and helps take the pressure off our public hospitals. But the Labor Party, wearing its ideological blinkers, wants to take all of this away. Labor would oversee the collapse of the private health system so that everything could be controlled by the state. It is not happy with the balance between public and private which has delivered Australians one of the best health systems in the world.

If the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate were to be abolished, many working families would not be able to afford to pay their health insurance premiums. If they were to consequently drop out of health insurance, there would be no way they could afford the costs of treatment in a private hospital and they would then be forced to join the queues of people awaiting treatment in our public hospitals. If some think that the public hospital system is under pressure now, we had better start praying that Labor stays in opposition, because the queues of the sick and those desperately in need of surgery would otherwise grow at an enormous rate.

It was Labor that started this problem in the first place. When they last held the reins of government they almost destroyed the private health insurance industry, and now they want to complete what they started. When Labor defeated the coalition government in 1983, nearly 65 per cent of Australians were covered by private health insurance. By 1996, this proportion had plummeted to below 34 per cent. It was Labor's own then health minister, Graham `Richo' Richardson, who warned in 1993 that if the numbers of those privately insured continued to drop the entire health system would collapse. That was the Labor Party then.

This government's policies have helped to lift the number of people with private health insurance to 44 per cent, and it is this government—the Howard coalition government—which is the true protector and standard bearer of Medicare. I want to make one point very clear: I not only support Medicare, I support the Howard coalition government's policies to improve it to ensure that all Australians, regardless of their social or financial situation, have access to the best possible health services. Where you live in this great country of ours should not determine the quality of health care you receive. That is why I strongly support the A Fairer Medicare package being implemented by the Minister for Health and Ageing, Senator the Hon. Kay Patterson. The minister is doing a fantastic job, because she is not afraid to stand up against vested interests or to implement policies which strengthen Medicare and the availability of top quality health care to all Australians.

The $917 million A Fairer Medicare package strengthens Medicare by increasing the number of doctors in areas where they are most needed and by supporting the provision of bulk-billing through extra incentives available to all GPs throughout Australia. To deal with the problem of doctor and nurse shortages in some parts of the country, the government has increased training numbers by providing an additional 150 places for each group over four years. The minister has also announced 234 additional medical school places to be based across Australia and bonded to rural and regional areas. Over 100 additional interns are currently working in public hospitals, thanks to the government's decision to allow graduating Australian-trained international medical students to stay on and work in public hospitals in the country.

In the 2002-2003 budget, the government announced the More Doctors for Outer Metropolitan Areas measure to improve access to medical services for people living in outer metropolitan areas of the six state capitals. So far, these communities have benefited from an additional 105 doctors as a result of this program. Also, an allocation of 210 new nursing places has been made available for 2004 and this will increase to 574 over the four years until 2007. There will be an additional 457 full-time nurses for GP practices located in outer metropolitan areas where there are existing work force shortages, which is expected to benefit around 800 GP practices and the communities they serve. The government has also funded approximately 25,000 new Commonwealth supported places in nurse training institutions throughout Australia. There are people in some areas of Australia who have never been bulk-billed, but under this government all Australians will be eligible to be bulk-billed.

If you were listening to Labor's shadow health spokesperson earlier and were not aware of the facts, you could be forgiven for thinking that few doctors bulk-billed anymore anywhere. In fact, almost seven out of 10 services are still bulk-billed, and the government subsidises all Australian visits to GPs—to the tune of almost $2.8 billion in the last calendar year. It is interesting to note that in the member for Lalor's own electorate the bulk-billing rate for the past 12 months to the year ending in March was 82.9 per cent.

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —Unbelievable!

Mrs DRAPER —It was 82.9 per cent in the member for Lalor's electorate! Nearly 40 per cent of people in the member for Lalor's electorate, which is over 49,000 people, also have private health insurance.

An attack is being made on Medicare and it is being led by the opposition leader, Simon Crean, and the Labor Party. As the supporters and defenders of Medicare, the Howard government is the best hope for its survival. In the last six years of the Hawke-Keating Labor government, the Medicare rebate for a standard GP consultation increased by less than nine per cent, or $1.70. The Howard government has increased the rebate by 20 per cent, or $4.20, over the past six years, and overall funding for general practice has increased by 30 per cent in that time. Medicare expenditure has increased by $2 billion during our tenure on the government benches, and total health expenditure in 2003-04 is expected to increase to $32 billion—up from a measly $18.6 billion during Labor's last year in office.

Despite public hospitals being the responsibility of state and territory governments, the federal government is providing them with $42 billion over the next five years to help them run their hospitals. This is $10 billion more than previous agreements and a 17 per cent increase over and above inflation. My home state of South Australia will be receiving an extra $800 million as part of this agreement. As I said a moment ago, an attack is being made on Medicare, but it is being led by the opposition leader, Simon Crean, and the Labor Party, who are bereft and bankrupt of any policies to take to the next federal election. They are the destroyers of Medicare, and the Howard government is the defender.

The SPEAKER —The time allotted for the debate has expired.