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Monday, 2 December 2002
Page: 6826

Senator KNOWLES (2:03 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Health and Ageing, Senator Patterson. Will the minister update the Senate as to the success of the Howard government's policies that have seen the pressure taken off Medicare and the public hospital system? In addition, is the minister aware of any recent statements calling for the abolition of the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate, and what impact would such a move have on Medicare and the public hospital system?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —I thank Senator Knowles for her question and her interest in health issues over the time that she has been in the Senate. It is a shame that the Labor Party politicians on the other side do not have the same interest. When Labor were in government, the private health system, as I have said before, was dangerously and perilously close to being non-existent. The membership of private health insurance was running at about 33 per cent and even the then Minister for Health, Graham Richardson, said that it was totally unsustainable as it was. With our Lifetime Health Cover and with our rebate, we have brought it up to 44 per cent and we have seen a significant increase in membership and a significant increase in the use of private hospitals.

When Labor were in their last years of government, premiums were increasing by an average of eight per cent per year and Australians were dropping out of private health insurance at the rate of two per cent per year. We have restored the balance between the public and the private system in terms of hospitals. We have pursued policy options, and at every step along the way Labor have resisted them—basically motivated by their blind ideological opposition to private health care. They have been unable to acknowledge the success of our programs. Almost nine million Australians now have private health cover, and they all get and enjoy the benefits of the coalition's 30 per cent rebate. The rebate has been the cornerstone of our policies, and it has taken the pressure off Medicare and our public hospitals.

The latest figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, which are based on the figures provided by the states— I repeat: those figures are provided by the states—show that in 2000-01 public hospital admissions decreased by minus 0.1 per cent and private hospital admissions increased by 12 per cent. That is a massive 12 per cent increase compared with the decrease in public hospital admissions. This is before we even begin to see the real impact of lifetime cover, which will come in over a period of time. The figures are even more interesting when you look at the states one by one. In New South Wales, public admissions fell by 7,370 or minus 0.6 per cent and private admissions grew by 35,486 or 5.9 per cent. In Queensland, public admissions fell by 19,267 or minus 2.7 per cent and private admissions grew by a massive 73,903 or 16.3 per cent. In South Australia, public admissions were down by 2,961 or minus 0.8 per cent and private admissions grew by 24,511 or 15.3 per cent.

On the face of this obvious and overwhelming success, the Labor Party maintain their opposition to private health care. We awoke to screaming headlines this morning on Labor's clear intent to dismantle the rebate. I said the other day here in the chamber that one thing we can guarantee is that private health insurance will be 30 per cent cheaper under the coalition. The fact that the Labor Party are going to take the rebate away—and they have now basically let the cat out of the bag—represents an attack on Australian families and pensioners. Last year, Labor went to the election promising to retain the rebate in full, and in February this year—this is their flip-flop on policy—the Leader of the Opposition said:

We've said that this is now a big part of people's budgets and we went to the last election retaining the private health rebate. We won't be changing that.

It is a bit like the l-a-w tax cuts that we had in the 1993 election. He said that on 5 February. Not quite a year on, the leader has now changed that—he is openly canvassing the idea of opposing it. The person he has given the task of reviewing Labor's policies is Jenny Macklin. She is quoted in the Canberra Times, saying that the rebate `is a huge area of expenditure and a lot of people are figuring out that it isn't worth having'. Let me tell you that thousands of people who have actually had surgery undertaken in private hospitals when they would have been on a public hospital waiting list—(Time expired)