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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6598


Senator MOORE (3:26 PM) —I also rise to take note of the responses given by the Minister for Health and Ageing, Senator Patterson. We now have the figures. This time last week we were discussing when we were going to get them. There was much debate about when the figures would be released. We got them on Friday—as we said, there was a lot of interest in those figures; people wanted to know what was happening with bulk-billing across the country—and over the weekend media outlets across the country published those figures. No matter which way you look at this issue and no matter which form of graph you consider—and we have seen various forms of graphs on this issue in the last few months—the big black line for bulk-billing is going down and the big black line for how much it costs you to go to the doctor is going up. Those points were raised very effectively this afternoon through questions. I will not go through all the figures again. However, it is clear that bulk-billing is going down. The minister said in her responses that the government had done a range of things. She detailed schemes that had put money into medical practices across the country, she talked about the increase in medical students—and naturally we applaud that—and she spent considerable time talking about the immunisation program, another thing that none of us can do anything but applaud. We are proud and in fact relieved that immunisation rates are going up in the country. However, that does not relate to the fact that fewer people have access to the simple service of bulk-billing.

Last week in this House, another minister introduced a new kind of barometer for how you assess how people in the country feel about legislation. I quote the example of the lady cutting tomato sandwiches and the bloke playing with the spanner. That was a kind of litmus test for how people would consider legislation with regard to what was happening to them in the country. I ask whether the lady cutting the tomato sandwiches and the bloke playing with the spanner would be happy when considering their access to medical bulk-billing in Australia. We have heard that currently, as of the figures that we received last week, on average seven out of 10 people can get access to bulk-billing. It is `on average' because there is no average seven out of 10; in some parts of Australia it is as low as five and in other parts it is up over eight, so we have to cut that down the middle and say `seven out of 10'. I wonder if the seven out of 10 people now getting bulk-billing will feel confident that in six weeks and one or two days, when we get the next round of HIC figures, they will not be the ones that drop off. They will be wondering this: in about six weeks time, if I happen to be in the luxurious position of being seventh in a line of 10 trying to access a doctor in this country, will I be the one to drop off? That is just not good enough.

It is not good enough to say that we should be comfortable with the fact that bulk-billing is being reduced. It is not good enough to say that we should be able to look back and wait. And it is certainly not good enough to continue to blame the government of six years ago for what is happening now. I am really happy that more medical students are being trained. That is a good and positive thing. But I am at a bit of a loss here: just because more medical students are being trained, is there any guarantee that these extra medical students will, in fact, offer bulk-billing services? We seem to have figures thrown at us and statements made, but there is no linkage between the statements that are being made and the question that the lady with the tomato sandwiches and the bloke with the spanner want answered: `When I go to the doctor, how much do I have to pay and how much does my family have to pay?' That is the question. It is not good enough to hide behind large, basic statements about health care. We want to know about bulk-billing. We care about it. Stephen Smith cares about it. He understands access and equity. He understands those issues. Labor is committed to bulk-billing. We will continue to be, and we are waiting to see what happens in the future.