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Wednesday, 12 February 2014
Page: 188


Ms RISHWORTH (Kingston) (12:05): I am pleased to rise to talk on the Private Health Insurance Legislation Amendment Bill 2013. I think from the outset it is important to note that I and Labor have always supported a sustainable private healthcare insurance system. Indeed, the support for the private health insurance system has been an important complement to our universal public healthcare system. Labor has always advocated for a universal public healthcare system. It is something that I raised in my first speech here in this parliament—the importance of ensuring that, whatever your circumstance, you can actually get access to public health care. Indeed, it is certainly recognised around the world how accessible our public healthcare system is. I do plead with the government not to dismantle it and not to add a $6 fee that will rise and rise and rise—a copayment to visit a GP. I hope they do see sense in that proposal and rule it out, because having a universal healthcare system, a system that allows you to get medical help when you need it and that is affordable, is incredibly important. But there is also the complementary private health insurance system which is an important complement to the public system. It allows people to pay a contribution to get other services or discounts that they might not otherwise have been able to.

Labor has always believed in ensuring that our private health insurance sector is sustainable. That is why we moved, in the last parliament, to raise a number of savings measures over the forward estimates to ensure that does happen. We brought in means-testing for the private health insurance rebate, which was an important sustainability measure for government in terms of the subsidy. Unfortunately those on the other side railed against this continually, with apocalyptic predictions about what would happen. What we have seen is that the number of those taking up private health insurance has actually increased. All the concerns, the predictions of the whole system falling apart, have not eventuated. Indeed, it seems a very sensible measure to means-test those who can afford it—who can actually pay without getting a rebate from government—while still targeting those who do need assistance to take up private health insurance. Self-funded retirees and a lot of pensioners continue to choose to take out private health insurance and they are the ones we targeted to ensure they get support. The government railed against that while in opposition, but now we do not hear too much from them. They said they were going to repeal the means-testing and get rid of it; now we hear that commitment change somewhat, because they have seen the light. They have realised it did not lead to the huge problems they predicted. In fact, as I said, we have seen those numbers increase in real terms.

Labor is committed to sustainability, and that is why we will be supporting this bill. It makes the same savings over the forward estimates as proposed under Labor: approximately $700 million. It is a sensible and sustainable way to support the private health insurance rebate and the government's contribution to it. I really hope that we will see some sense from the current government when it comes to private health insurance.

They are pretty sneaky, this government. Despite publicly saying they have made no preconceived decision and have no intention of selling off Medibank Private, we now know from reports in the paper today that they have engaged someone from a consulting company on $2,000 a day to prepare a communication strategy to prepare the public for the sale of Medibank Private. That is pretty tricky, without proper public debate or the release of the report that was meant to guide the government in their decision-making. They have pre-empted that report and made their decision. They are working out how they can best pull the wool over the eyes of the Australian people by paying a consulting company $2,000 a day. That money would be better reinvested into our health system to ensure that people can see a doctor or get into a hospital when they need to. They could invest in the infrastructure around this country which is so important and necessary.

I hope that the government will be transparent with the Australian people—that they will come clean about what their intentions for Medibank Private are and provide information to the Australian people about what their reasoning is and what the report said. One can only assume that if they have made their decision they have actually received that report, but of course that is unlikely. It seems this is a decision that has already been agreed to.

It is important that, as we move forward, we look at both sustainable private and sustainable public healthcare systems which complement each other rather than overtake each other. I know the shadow minister was in here talking about some concerns around ensuring the private sector does not stop the public sector from flourishing, and I certainly share those concerns.

The other key element, when it comes to private health insurance, is the role for government in determining what those premiums are. I was very disappointed, at two minutes to Christmas, when the minister rubber-stamped the largest premium hikes we have seen in a decade. For those out there who are choosing to take out private health insurance it is an important investment to make, but it does cost. There is a role for government to get private health insurance companies to justify that increase. When Labor was in government we spent a lot of time working with the private health insurers to determine what was a reasonable hike in premiums. Under the coalition, companies came and proposed an increase and the minister, without a thought for the cost-of-living increases it would impose on families, just rubber-stamped it. It was the largest increase in close to a decade.

I would ask the minister, when that time comes around again, to think especially of those who are contributing to the cost of private health insurance. Give some thought to them. Give some thought to the premiums they are paying. Really ask some tough questions—do not just rubber-stamp. Ask some tough questions about why this rise is justified. Maybe it is just that the minister is learning; he is starting to adjust himself to being the minister. But he should ask some tough questions and get a justification of why insurance premiums have to rise, because it does have an effect. It has an effect on families, and it was quite cruel to do that just before Christmas. I am sure the government felt that if they brought it in just before Christmas it could just be swept under the carpet and no-one would notice—but people in my electorate noticed. They noticed the increase and have asked me to pass on to the government their request to give some consideration to their cost-of-living issues.

The shadow minister for health has moved an amendment highlighting the importance of competition in this sector. I certainly concur with the shadow minister on that amendment. I think the amendment is very sensible. We need to ensure we are not only improving competition in the sector—and I think we are providing the groundwork for that—but also standing up for consumers. Those on the other side might not think there is a role for government in that but certainly we on this side of the House think that is also really important.

I commend this bill and the amendment to the House. I ask the government to continue focusing on delivering good outcomes for consumers and not just to rubber-stamp increases in premiums that have no clear justification and have no hard questions asked of them. When this time comes round again I ask that the minister give that proper consideration.