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Tuesday, 3 December 2002
Page: 6990

Senator PAYNE (2:14 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Health and Ageing, Senator Patterson. Will the minister provide the Senate with an update on the success of the government's policies to make private health insurance affordable for more Australians? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —I thank Senator Payne for bringing us back to the real issues about policy and the things that really matter to Australians, not the gutter crawling that the Labor Party is involved in at the moment. We restored the balance between the public and private hospital systems. When we came into government, private health care membership was running at 34 per cent, which was totally unsustainable, and private hospitals were up against the wall. What we have been able to do is increase the number of members in private health insurance to 44 per cent. That means that private hospitals are now sustainable. Over the last 12 months we have had a 12 per cent increase in private hospital admissions and a minus one per cent decrease in public hospital admissions. We imagine that that might turn around slightly, but there has been a rebalancing between the two sectors. The people who were waiting in long state hospital queues have now been able to have their elective surgery undertaken under private health insurance.

Last night on the 7.30 Report, Mr Crean was asked eight times by Kerry O'Brien whether he would keep the rebate for private health insurance. He would not commit. Having said in February this year that they would keep the rebate, the Labor Party did not commit. There are more than eight reasons why they should keep the private health insurance rebate. It makes private health insurance more affordable. It is a 30 per cent member's rebate, which means 30 per cent more in the pockets of families. The second reason he should have given Kerry O'Brien for keeping the rebate is that it is an important part of the family budget. The Labor Party admitted that before the last election, but now they are going to renege on that and take it away. The third reason he should have given Kerry O'Brien is that Australians have more support to meet their health care needs, their dentistry needs and their optometry needs—

Senator Chris Evans —And their music needs and their camping needs and their shoes!

Senator PATTERSON —They are screaming over the other side about the very small items. I have argued that the health funds ought to look at the direct health benefits. But they are very small compared with the 50 per cent of dental needs that are met under private health insurance ancillaries. The fourth reason Mr Crean should have given is that the rebate restores the balance between private and public health care. But Labor are not committed to any aspect of private health care. In fact, Jenny Macklin is totally opposed to it; she is leading the review of it, so God help the private health system. The fifth reason he should have given, when he was asked a fifth time, is that it takes pressure off Medicare. Labor would not give Kerry O'Brien a commitment and they would not give the Australian public a commitment that they would keep the private health insurance rebate.

The other thing the rebate does is free up public hospitals. When Kerry O'Brien asked a sixth time and again gave him the opportunity to say that they would keep the rebate, Mr Crean could have had a sixth reason— that is, it frees up resources for public hospitals. I have demonstrated how that is done, with a 12 per cent increase in private hospital admissions and a minus one per cent decrease in public hospital admissions. He was asked a seventh time, and a seventh reason he could have given for supporting the private health insurance rebate was that more Australians have subsidised access to dentists, physiotherapists, optometrists, chiropractors and all the other allied health professionals that assist them in keeping well and maintaining their health and in delivering direct health benefits.

When he was asked for the eighth time by Kerry O'Brien whether he would keep the rebate, the eighth reason he could have given was that more resources are being invested in health care. He was not asked a ninth time, but the ninth reason he could have given is that there are nine million Australians who have private health insurance and one million of those earn less than $20,000 a year. I am sure they would have been very interested last night to hear Mr Crean on the 7.30 Report not committing to the rebate. Labor are not committed to assisting people to pay their private health insurance, giving them choice in the health system and reducing the strain on public hospital systems. Mr Crean had eight opportunities and the ninth reason was probably the best—that there are nine million people who will lose the rebate. (Time expired)