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Tuesday, 14 February 2012
Page: 1197

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (MaranoaSecond Deputy Speaker) (20:25): I rise today to speak on the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives, the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives (Medicare Levy Surcharge) and the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives (Medicare Levy Surcharge—Fringe Benefits) bills. I will be joining my coalition colleagues in voting against this plan by Labor, which will result only in cost increases for private health insurance of up to 43 per cent for households and put even more pressure on public hospitals, which are already under significant strain.

I represent an electorate of 730,000 square kilometres and nearly all hospitals in the electorate of Maranoa are public. There are two or three that used to be run by local government. There is one private hospital in Kingaroy but the rest are public. There are also private hospitals, owned by a health provider, that are combined with aged-care facilities in Crows Nest, Allora, Clifton and Killarney.

If this bill is passed some $2.4 billion will be taken out of the health system. The government will not put that money into the public health sector. It will put it on its bottom line to pay for its profligate spending and its mismanagement of the economy. That is why we see these bills before the House, notwithstanding the assurances that were given prior to the 2007 election, in which this government came to power.

I will be supporting the amendment moved by the Leader of the Opposition. I am sure that every member on this side of the House will be supporting that amendment. That amendment says that this bill should lie on the table and not be voted on until after the next election. In other words, let us take this issue to the people of Australia at the next election.

The government proposes to means test private health insurance rebates. It is absolutely wrong to assume that not enough people in rural and regional Queensland will be affected by the government's proposed means-test thresholds of $80,000 for singles and $160,000 for couples. The government does not understand that this will impact on the eight million Australians who live outside the capital cities. In fact, my own electorate, as I just described, is around 730,000 square kilometres in area with a population of almost 130,000, all of whom will be affected by these changes, should they pass both houses.

The Australian Health Insurance Association says that nearly 40,000 voters in my electorate have private health insurance. There are more, if you include the children of those families. The government says that around 30,000 people across Australia would quit private health insurance. I find the government's estimate incredible, when independent analysis says it is more likely that hundreds of thousands of people, up to as many as one million people over the next few years, will leave private health insurance—not the 30,000 people that this government claims. That is just fairyland stuff. It is a bit like its record when it comes to running a budget for this nation. It has no idea. No wonder their budgets are so far out, because their numbers on this are just totally unbelievable.

More than 2.4 million health fund members will face immediate premium increases of up to 43 per cent if the means test is introduced. Some 5.5 million Australians who are covered by private health insurance have incomes of less than $50,000 and, of those, three million have annual household incomes of under $35,000 per year—many of them in my own constituency of Maranoa. They cannot afford these extra costs.

The minister at the table will say that they will be covered by these bills and they will not be affected. When it comes to insurance policies and premiums the simple mathematics is that, if you have fewer people remaining in private health insurance and many of those people are in the middle- and high-income brackets—and many of them are—they will leave because of the implication of these bills on their private health insurance. When you have fewer people taking out private health insurance, what happens to premiums? They go up. And that is why more people on the lower income thresholds will leave because the premiums that they are paying now will be more expensive, and so they will opt out. The way in which the government is trying to sell this message to the Australian people defies logic.

Private health insurance has increasingly become a significant component of the Australian healthcare system; that is undeniable. The majority of Australians now hold some level of private health cover. In fact, private hospitals look after some 40 per cent of patients in Australia. In my own electorate of Maranoa there are close to 40,000 people who have private health insurance, and they make up a little over 40 per cent of the voters in my electorate.

I said earlier that we do not have many private hospitals in my electorate; but, like most Australians, regional and rural families and individuals want to have protection in the event of a serious medical emergency or just because the right thing to do is to take out private health insurance for some time in their life. Many see it as a lifetime commitment. It is not a commitment made on a year-by-year basis; it is a lifetime commitment. It also gives them—as the shadow parliamentary secretary for regional health services and Indigenous health, who is at the table, would know—the right to choose. It is about a question of choice. Across the entire country some 52 per cent of people hold private health insurance. It is the policies initiated by the coalition government which have led to such a high take-up of private health insurance across Australia. That is why we are going to defend our principles and our policies on this side of the House and not support this bill.

In 1997 the coalition introduced a one per cent Medicare levy surcharge on taxable income, and in 1999 the coalition government introduced the 30 per cent cash rebate. I want to talk a little bit about that tax rebate because often people say it is only for those people who pay tax; it is not. It is a cash rebate for people, including those on fixed incomes or pensions, who take out private health insurance. They get a cash rebate, and that cash is often a significant part of the cost of their private health insurance. If that insurance goes up and then there are increases in the cost of living as a result of the carbon tax, which comes in on 1 July, those people, the most vulnerable in many ways in our community, will start to say that private health insurance is one of those bills that they cannot afford to pay any longer, and they will opt out.

The year 2000 saw Lifetime Health Cover. From 2005, under a coalition government, the more elderly people in our community received greater rebates for taking out private health insurance. At every step of the reform process under the coalition, we saw more and more people taking out private health insurance. The figures speak for themselves. In the 12 months after the introduction of the 30 per cent rebate in January 1999, the percentage of Australians with private hospital health cover jumped from 30 per cent to 43 per cent. The numbers speak for themselves. People were voting with their feet. They took up private health insurance because of the way that the coalition government, led by Prime Minister John Howard, was committed to ensuring that more and more people should take out private health insurance, and people responded in droves by taking out private health insurance.

This has helped to keep downward pressure on premiums and also reduce pressure on our public health system. Regional hospitals like the South Burnett Community Private Hospital in Kingaroy in my electorate also accommodates visiting specialists for local residents. Any adjustment to the rebate that causes a cutback in demand in regional private hospitals will directly affect visiting specialists. They will just return to the cities and regional patients will no longer be able to readily access their services.

The public hospitals in western Queensland have visiting urologists, ophthalmologists and orthopaedic surgeons. These specialists leave large city practices to come out to my electorate. They still have to pay for their practice in the city, as the parliamentary secretary at the table would be aware. They have the cost of running that practice, yet they come out to bring their specialist services to rural and regional Australia because people are privately insured. What happens when these people opt out of private health insurance? The specialists will no longer come to these areas.

All specialists are important but one of the most critical specialists is the ophthalmologist, because for many people in rural areas their sight is a significant issue because of cataracts. Cataract surgery is giving people back their sight. When people have limited sight there could be some situations where that leads to an accident which otherwise could have been avoided if they had had better sight, and then that accident could lead to more complex health issues.

I say to the health minister at the table: you are welcome to come out to my electorate and visit some of the towns there. I will take you to visit the Royal Flying Doctors Service. For your own information, Minister, a third of the funds for the Royal Flying Doctor Service are raised by the local communities in order to bring a health service to their communities. They run rodeos, raffles and gymkhanas. People donate a beast and have a camp draft to raise money to bring a health service to their community. I am sure that if the Reverend John Flynn were with us today he would say that what this government is doing is absolutely wrong and that it will have a significant impact, particularly on those people in rural and regional remote areas who, in general, are on lower incomes than those living in more populated cities. It is just wrong to assume that because there is only one major private hospital in the Maranoa electorate, and three smaller ones, we in south-western central Queensland would not be affected by this proposal. The initial exodus of people from private health insurance is estimated to push up private health insurance by about 10 per cent, and these are independent figures.

Ms Plibersek: They are not independent. They were paid for.

Mr BRUCE SCOTT: They are independent figures. When we look at the numbers on the Treasury benches on the other side of the House and look at their budgets and look at the way they are running this economy, and we have another budget blowout, I think I would believe independent analysis and independent research more than some of the stuff that might be coming from the way this government manages the economy.

The other thing I want to talk about is that this government promised that it would not touch the private health insurance prior to 2007. In September 2007 the then Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, released a media statement which said:

Federal Labor has made it crystal clear that we are committed to retaining all of the existing private health insurance rebates—

Ms Plibersek: Madam Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. Speaker after speaker continues to ignore the 2010 election, where Labor clearly took this policy to the people.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms AE Burke ): It is not a point of order. The member for Maranoa has the call.

Mr BRUCE SCOTT: In fact, Madam Deputy Speaker, it is disorderly by the minister.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The member for Maranoa is an occupant of the chair and he should realise that is not disorderly, but it is not a point of order.

Mr BRUCE SCOTT: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I take your ruling. What the former minister said in 2007 is on the public record; it is out there for all to see. What we are debating here is the future of the rebates for private health insurance.

I want to end—and I will leave this message for those opposite—with something that was sent to me by one of my constituents in the town of Kingaroy in the South Burnett, Elyssa Perrett. She wrote:

I would greatly encourage you as an elected representative to stand up for freedom of choice and vote against the removal of this subsidy and encourage others to do so.

I have to be the voice of my constituency. They do not have a voice in here. I am their voice and Elyssa is absolutely right. That would be a reflection of people right across the electorate of Maranoa. I will be voting against this bill. (Time expired)