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Tuesday, 14 February 2012
Page: 1218

Mr SECKER (BarkerOpposition Whip) (21:56): I rise to speak on the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill 2011 and the related bills. This legislation provides yet another example of this government breaking promises to the Australian public. We all know that Labor went to the 2007 election promising that it would not make changes to private health insurance, yet here it is doing just the opposite. It is a disgrace. Not only did it break that promise in this parliament, it tried to break it in the last parliament. It is in writing. As recently as 2009 the former health minister, Nicola Roxon, said that under no circumstances would the government walk away from the 30 per cent rebate. Unfortunately, that is what we have come to expect from this government.

It is a sad time for politics, because the Australian public cannot believe a word this government says. The Prime Minister said, 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead,' but she changed her mind and Australia is facing a carbon tax. I ask this government: what can the people believe? These bills we are debating are proof that this government cannot be trusted. The Prime Minister seems to think it was okay to break the 2007 election promise, because the government took it to the 2010 election, notwithstanding the fact that it tried to break it in the last parliament. It was always going to happen with Labor, wasn't it, because in its heart it hates private health insurance. The Prime Minister gave her guarantee when she was shadow minister for health that the Labor Party would retain the rebate. But as Prime Minister she is doing the opposite.

I take this opportunity to call on the crossbenchers to stand up for the people of their electorates. The member for New England correctly said on the weekend that this legislation would be a devastating blow for health in regional areas. I know that, he knows that and all other regional and rural members know that. The member for Lyne spoke in this House earlier tonight and said he wanted to turn unsustainable health systems into sustainable ones. What a great goal. But I say to the member for Lyne: that is backward logic. Making private health insurance unaffordable for the majority of Australians does not make it sustainable. I am standing up for the people of Barker by standing up against this legislation, because I believe regional areas will be worse off.

Regional health relies on private health insurance. Visiting specialists to regional areas rely on both public and private patients. If the number of private patients drops off, which is inevitable, the visiting specialists will not visit anymore. Just on this fact, what does the government expect will happen if private health insurance is made more expensive? Of course people will drop out of private health. This means insurance will go up for those remaining in the system, weakening the health system not strengthening it. I would like, yet again, to highlight the Keith and District Hospital, which is in my electorate. I have told this House about Keith hospital on many occasions before but I would like to highlight a specific point. The Keith hospital is a community owned hospital which was opened in October 1954. The community donated land, crops and endless hours of volunteer work to make it happen. The Keith and District Hospital Inc. operates under the Associations Incorporation Act 1985 and is governed by a board of management who volunteer their time to serve the community.

The way the hospital is run is really quite remarkable. However, disappointingly, the hospital is sometimes referred to as a private hospital, which is wrong—it is a community hospital. The Keith hospital does not operate for a profit, the usual definition of a private hospital, yet I have heard this government refer to the hospital as private on many occasions. This is not correct. Both the state Labor government and the federal Labor government have tried to fob off the funding crisis at Keith hospital by saying that it is a private hospital. That is not good enough.

Last year I introduced a motion calling on the federal Labor government to directly fund Keith hospital and to take the funded amount away from the state. I am outraged that, to this date, the government has done nothing for the Keith hospital. My Senate colleagues introduced the same motion in their place and the motion passed, as it did in this House. But still there is no action from this government. It is an outrage. This government is defying the will of the parliament. In both houses the government let the motions pass without dissent, yet nothing has been done.

On many occasions in this House I have called on the former Minister for Health and Ageing to take action on Keith hospital. Now I call on the current Minister for Health, the Hon. Tanya Plibersek, to step up and honour the motion passed last year by both houses of parliament and to help Keith hospital. To do so will not cost the federal government or the taxpayer one cent. The community of Keith are still struggling to support their hospital, but they have been long forgotten by the Labor government, both state and federal, because Labor does not care about regional Australia and it hates private health insurance.

I want to make the point to the House that Keith hospital is a perfect example of why this bill before the House is short-sighted. Most patients at Keith hospital have private health insurance, thereby reducing the burden on the public health system. I suspect Keith has the highest rate of private health insurance in Australia—because the people of Keith support their local community hospital. I can tell you now: there are not a lot of rich people in Keith. You would think the government would reward the residents of Keith for not adding extra strain on the public system. But, no—quite the opposite.

Mr Somlyay interjecting

Mr SECKER: As the Chief Opposition Whip says, yes, they are punishing them.

On 9 February last year, I heard the government's ignorance on Keith hospital once again. Senator Ludwig, in response to a question without notice from Senator Xenophon, said:

Minister Roxon and this government understand the importance of local private hospitals to regional communities and the role they play in keeping sick and aged patients in their local areas. However, on behalf of the minister, the level of subsidy the South Australian government pays to community private hospitals such as the Keith and District Hospital is clearly a matter for the state government of South Australia.

Just like Pontius Pilate—washing his hands. I find it hard to believe that the government in charge of this country and the services in this country cannot even get its facts straight. Keith hospital is not a private hospital; it is a community hospital and should be treated as such.

If either the former or current health minister bothered to visit the Keith hospital, they could see for themselves the community that built the Keith hospital and they could meet with the board—the state minister has refused to meet with them—who, as I said earlier, volunteer their time and who are very professional in the way they do it. In fact, they do it at a cheaper rate than the state government system. I find it hugely disrespectful to the people who tirelessly give up their time for their community, for a not-for-profit hospital, to be told by this government that they are someone else's problem because they are a 'private' hospital. The Keith community is a typical regional community. Like any regional area, the wages are typically less than those in the city areas and most people are not what this government would call wealthy.

We know that 5.6 million Australians who have private health insurance are on incomes of less than $50,000. As a result of this government introducing this legislation—

Mr Dreyfus: Their rebates will be the same. Tell the truth.

Mr SECKER: tens of thousands of people will drop out of the private health system, as they will, I am sure—

The SPEAKER: Order! The honourable parliamentary secretary will show more restraint than he currently is.

Mr SECKER: because it will be unaffordable for many, patients at Keith hospital will also drop out. This will create a two-tiered system, like the USA, because it will be the less well-off who drop out but those better-off will mostly be able to stay in private health insurance. This is backward logic. The government does not see the logic here because it is not just Keith hospital, it will be hospitals all around Barker and all around Australia.

This government will not be taking pressure off the public system—it will be adding to it in an enormous way. In the instance of Keith hospital, very clearly, by trying to save $300,000 they will probably add $2 million to the public health system. It is the worst form of cost-benefit analysis and, obviously, it has not been done. There will be a huge influx of people who drop off the private health system and onto the public health system. Private hospitals support 40 per cent of all patients in this country and, in regional areas, it is much higher. They cover the majority of elective surgery.

It is estimated around 12 million Australians hold private health insurance and, as I stated earlier, nearly half—5.6 million—of those earn $50,000 or less. Of those, 3.4 million earn less than $35,000. This government is seeking to punish those who have done the right thing by taking out private health insurance. I have heard those on the other side state that we are wrong, that not many people will be affected and those will be just the rich. Well, the rich will still afford to stay on. It will actually be the poorer who drop off—and who cares about them? That is what the government thinks.

I have no doubt that premium prices will rise. Due to the shrinkage from dropouts, premiums will rise for those who the government calls rich, when in fact it will not be those who drop out. I believe that about 2.4 million will be affected by increases in their premium of various stages from 14 per cent to 29 per cent or 43 per cent, depending on their incomes. Deloitte has predicted that up to 1.6 million Australians will drop their cover over the next five years. They have forecast that up to 4.3 million Australians will downgrade their cover over the next five years. Not only this, but premiums will increase 10 per cent and an extra 845,000 Australians will be admitted to public hospitals. This is a huge addition to an already struggling public system and there does not seem to be anything in the forward estimates to take account of that.

This government states that only 25,000 people will drop out of the private health system. Well, like that good Aussie film says, 'You've got to be dreaming' if you think it is only 25,000 people compared to the 1.6 million modelled by the Deloitte analysis. Discrepancies in this government's numbers are something that the Australian public is getting used to, and it is a pretty sad state of affairs. Labor hates private health insurance—it is in their DNA. This is just the first step. This is the first of the many changes with which this government will seek to wind back private health insurance. You only have to look at their record from 1983 to 1996, when such a wind-back actually happened. It is a fallacy to say that the poor subsidise the rich, because the so-called rich will always pay more through their Medicare levy anyway. This legislation has been twice rejected by the Senate and I will be watching its progress closely, as the Greens are still stating that they are opposed to the Medicare levy surcharge aspect of it.

The coalition supports private health rebates; the coalition understands that private health insurance helps reduce waiting lists and keeps pressure off the public health system—which is already under so much pressure because it has been mismanaged by many Labor state governments over many years. This legislation is bad for the health system. I do not support these bills and I call on the crossbench members to stand up for the people in their electorates, who will be worse off under this government and this legislation.