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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6598


Senator BARNETT (3:31 PM) —I am pleased to stand here to take note of the answer from Senator Kay Patterson today, and I would like to go straight to the key point that needs to be made. Two issues were raised here today. The first related to bulk-billing, and I will come to that. I am very pleased and happy to come to that. The other issue related to private health insurance. I would like to ask the ALP on the other side of this chamber, and Mr Stephen Smith in particular, to stand accountable and state what their position is because today's Australian newspaper records Mr Stephen Smith as saying that he used the trend in bulk-billing rates:

... to float the idea of slashing the private health insurance rebate, where the federal Government pays 30 per cent of insurance premiums directly to the health funds, cutting the direct cost to consumers.

The article also states:

The move could divert up to $2.3 billion a year, which he said could be poured into bulk-billing, as a priority over public hospitals.

This was a policy option for the Labor Party. I would like to know exactly what the policy of the Labor Party is. At this stage, we have one humungous black hole over there, in terms of health policy from the Labor Party. Prior to the last election they purportedly supported private health insurance rebates and that policy. They stood up and said, `Yes, we stand behind this policy. We will back it.' Here we are, nearly a year into the parliament, and the policy seems to be withering on the vine. In fact, it is not a policy anymore; it is an option. He is talking about slashing the private health insurance rebate. I would like to know what the 44 per cent of Australians who have private health insurance for hospital cover think about it. There are 8.7 million Australians who would wake up today and be devastated if they knew exactly what Mr Smith and the Labor Party were proposing with this option. I would like you to go out, write them a letter and tell them all exactly what you think—that you want to slash that rebate for the private health insurance policyholders in this country. This is a national disgrace. I think that the Labor Party should stand condemned. It is a disgrace, and they should hang their heads in shame.

Let us look at the September quarter figures for private health insurance. They were actually quite good. There has been an increase of more than 4,000 people who now have private health insurance in Australia. This is good and encouraging news, because that means that it frees up the funds for the public hospital system. And what is the amount of money that we have injected into the public hospital system? During question time the minister said that it was $3 billion. That is the amount of extra funds we have injected over that period of time. We have had a 12 per cent increase in admissions to private hospitals. What does that mean at the end of the day? It means that we are getting more people cared for and we are getting a healthier community. That is the outcome. I would like to know what the other side says. The key principles that the government and I go by here are access and quality care. We want Australians to have access to good, quality health care, and that health care, as I say, should have a quality outcome. They are the two key principles that we need to hold to, and that is exactly what we are doing.

With regard to bulk-billing, my Senate colleague Senator Knowles has summed it up very well. There has indeed been a decrease, but access and quality care are the key. Rural and regional Australia are struggling at the moment. What has happened there? Let us have a look at what the Age says today. They have summarised the key initiatives of the federal government, and I compliment the newspaper for this. They say:

The Federal Government has introduced a wide range of measures to lure more doctors to the bush, and to improve country health services ...

Too right it has! It has given $562 million worth of help, in terms of the Regional Health Strategy that was announced in the 2000 budget. That benefit is flowing through already. We are seeing 160 new doctors in training per annum, and they are getting out into rural and regional Australia. That is good news. (Time expired)