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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2076

Senator WEST —My question is directed to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. A recent decision by the Department of Veterans' Affairs which appears to withdraw the rights of veterans and war widows on the central coast of New South Wales to the services of private hospitals has caused some concern among veterans groups. A number of representations have been received by members of the Parliament. Has the Minister more details on the changes, and are veterans to be adversely affected?

Senator GIETZELT —It is true that there has been some change in the procedures by which veterans are able to receive medical treatment on the central coast of New South Wales. However, the problem has arisen over a long period and I think it is now admitted even by Opposition people that the economic decline that began in the early 1980s showed that governments had limited power in respect of increases in charges and in the way in which the economy declined in that period. Since we came to office there has been a tendency on the part of private hospitals, as far as the area of my Department is concerned, to take advantage of the economic circumstances to increase dramatically their charges in a period in which the Government has called for a degree of economic restraint.

Late last year the private hospitals operating in the central coast area increased their charges by between 25 and 30 per cent. Having regard to what governments can do in such circum- stances, and to allow the procedures that have operated for many years to continue, the Department subsequently took steps to contain the costs involved. As a result of the increased charges by the private hospitals, we required that those veterans needing medical treatment in hospitals would not be accommodated automatically in private hospitals, particularly when it was conceded that there was space available in the public hospital system in the region. The Department instituted a review and found that in general public hospitals had the capacity to accept repatriation patients, with priority based on medical need. As such, the continued unregulated use of private hospitals could not be justified on cost grounds. Local medical officers and specialists in the central coast region were notified of the Department's decision on 27 November last.

These changes, referred to by Senator West, were made because the continued unregulated use of private hospitals was non-cost effective. The arrangements were terminated because of the greed of the private hospital proprietors. The Senate Select Committee on Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes, chaired by Senator Giles, reported to the Parliament as late as yesterday, and that report may have some influence.

The procedures my Department has now initiated require a general practitioner recommending private hospital accommodation to seek the prior approval of the Department in each case. To that extent, if suitable public hospital facilities are not available, approval will be given in individual cases for private hospital accommodation.