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Wednesday, 13 November 2002
Page: 6236


Senator CROSSIN (3:14 PM) —I rise to take note of the answers from Senator Patterson, the Minister for Health and Ageing, today. I specifically want to talk about her two answers in relation to the figures regarding the bulk-billing rates and the veterans gold card. We heard the minister's response today that she believes that the figures for this quarter may be out this Friday. But if we just turn back the clock to August of this year, we will find that the minister was not certain about when the figures for the last quarter were going to be released. After a number of questions in this chamber, she finally admitted that she had seen the minute relating to the figures for that quarter, although when she first answered that question she had led us to believe that she had not seen them. So are we still to accept that the minister may not have seen the figures for this quarter? If she has not, why hasn't she been pressing the Health Insurance Commission to release these figures, given that it is beyond the six-week time frame when they normally release the figures?

If these figures are consistent with previous quarters, we know that the figures on the range and amount of bulk-billing that occurs in this country will continue to decline. I would not be surprised if the latest figures continue to show that. We have seen—and I remember taking note of this back in August—this government stand by and watch the rate of bulk-billing seriously decline since they came to office. This is a government that has no commitment to maintaining Medicare. When we were in government we put that system in place. We are the party that are committed to maintaining the integrity and the values of Medicare. This is a government that is happy to stand by and see Medicare eroded and diminished by stealth.

Let me turn to another very serious matter that has come to my attention in the last couple of weeks—that is, the diminishing value of the veterans gold card, particularly relating to the services they get from specialists, and now, it would seem, from general practitioners. If a veteran has a gold card and they present themselves to a doctor or a specialist, then that gold card has been, in effect, their Medicare card. They have been able to use that gold card to get access to that service. We know that specialists have withdrawn that access and have continued to fail to recognise the value of that gold card in recent months.

At the same time, this government has had in place with the Australian Medical Association an agreement—which expires on 13 December—to recognise a gold card for up to 50 per cent of the value of the Medicare rebate. But that agreement is about to expire. The minister said today that there were discussions with the AMA to try to extend that agreement for a short period. What happens after that? What is going to happen after that for the many thousands of veterans around this country who rely on their gold cards to get access to GP services? They will, more than likely, have to go and apply for a Medicare card, or they will have to take out private health insurance.

Let us have a look at that today. We asked the minister if the government could guarantee that they would give assistance to those veterans if private health insurance had to be taken out. She could not provide that guarantee today. This minister could not guarantee on the public record today that where veterans are disadvantaged and need to take out private health insurance the government would assist them. This minister's response was to say that people should go back to the Department of Veterans' Affairs and they will help them to find a doctor. In the case of the Northern Territory, for example, there are very few doctors who bulk-bill—in fact, one doctor in Palmerston bulk-bills after six o'clock at night. The Department of Veterans' Affairs will be able to find a doctor for veterans, but these doctors will not be bulk-billing. Veterans will have to get a Medicare card and take out private health insurance, and today we have seen the minister not able to guarantee whether those veterans could have any assistance if they find themselves in this situation in coming months. Again, we have seen that the government is not committed to assisting all Australians with their medical benefits. (Time expired)