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Friday, 8 May 1942

Mr DUNCAN-HUGHES (Wakefield) . - I listened with interest to what the Minister for Social Services (Mr. Holloway) had to say on the matter of hospitals, but he left me unconverted. The present position is that hospitals are defined in the principal act. The amount which they have been receiving hitherto has been 15s. 9d., and under the new provisions they would receive 16s. 6d. a week. It is proposed by the omission of the words " or hospital " from section 40a of the principal act to remove the obligation upon pensioners admitted as patients to pay to the hospitals that part of their pension which they are now obliged to pay. It will be left to the hospitals and to the pensioner patients to make their own arrangements as to payment. The Minister has said that, in his opinion, the hospitals will receive more under the proposed new arrangement than they have received hitherto.

Mr Holloway - They will, possibly.

Mr DUNCAN-HUGHES - It is perfectly obvious that the Commonwealth will have to pay at least as much as in the past.

Mr Holloway - The Commonwealth will be involved in no extra cost beyond that provided for in the general increase of the rate of the pension.

Mr DUNCAN-HUGHES - -Some loss must be incurred somewhere. Surely the Government does not intend that the loss, shall fall on the pensioners. The inevitable result will be that it will fall on the hospitals concerned, to which, in effect, a definite subsidy has been paid under the provisions of the Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act. The loss will fall on the hospitals in the first place, but, ultimately, on the ratepayers, or, since the hospitals are subsidized by the State governments, on the States, and, accordingly, on the taxpayers, because the States will pass on to the taxpayers any losses that they sustain as the result of this proposed legislation. Has the Minister made any application to the Premiers and to the State Ministers responsible for the maintenance of hospitals for their views on this proposal? The Minister recited a list of about half a dozen hospitals which, he said, had expressed a desire for this change to be made. I have some slight knowledge of the names of Australian hospitals, and there were few names in the list he read of which I had ever heard before. I take it that the Newcastle General Hospital would probably be the largest hospital on the list. He named no big hospital in any capital city of Australia as having made application for this change. There is no suggestion that the change was applied for by the State governments. As I have said, somebody will lose, and I put it to the committee that this is not the time to impose additional burdens on the hospitals. They are passing through times of extraordinary difficulty, particularly on account of shortages of supplies and higher costs of such things as chemicals and wood and coal. Moreover, a great number of the doctors are serving in the armed forces. In every way, the working costs of the hospitals are rising. Inevitably, too, in present conditions, there must be a shrinkage of subscriptions as the result of increasing taxes and the multitudinous appeals to the public for subscriptions to this or that war objective. I suggest, therefore, that the losses that the hospitals incur will have to be borne by the State governments and, therefore, by the taxpayers.

Mr Marwick - And by the community in cases of community hospitals.

Mr DUNCAN-HUGHES - Whichever way one looks at it, the taxpayer will have to make good the deficiency. I understand that there is no charge against a pensioner patient until he has been in hospital 28 days. That is not right. A pensioner should be required in the same way as every other patient is required to pay from the time he enters hospital. I put it to the committee that, as the result of this proposal, the hospitals, which are already passing through a n exceedingly difficult time, will have their rights severely cramped by this proposal. Section 40a should stand as it is, and the definition of "hospital" should be restored, or something corresponding inserted. I shall vote against this clause, if other honorable members share my views.

Mr.ROSEVEAR, (Dalley) [3.54].- I hope that the Minister for Social Services (Mr. Holloway) will not look upon clause 12 as being as permanent and unalterable as the laws of the Medes and the Persians. I have mixed among pensioners and their institutions for many years, and I have not discovered amongst them any request for an amendment of this kind.

Mr James - Then the honorable member has not knocked about as much as he should have,

Mr ROSEVEAR - I do not intend to argue with the honorable member for Hunter (Mr. James). I know the reasons in his electorate which actuate him in supporting this proposal, and I shall proceed to deal with them without the assistance or hindrance of interjections. I do not know of any demand amongst pensioners' organizations for this amendment, and, as a matter of fact, although I approach this clause differently from the honorable member for Wakefield (Mr. Duncan-Hughes), I say I am not certain that it will improve the position of the pensioners. Under the old provision, when a pensioner went into hospital his pension was held in hand by the department for the first 28 days, after which a fixed proportion was paid to the hospital and the remainder to the pensioner. Then, when the pensioner came out of the hospital, and when he needed the money most, he was handed four weeks' accumulated pension. The law fixed the fees chargeable to him by the hospital after the first 28 days. I consider that, under this proposal, immediately a pensioner applies for entry to a hospital the authorities, with the knowledge that his pension will be paid to him regularly throughout his period as a patient, will press him to pay something for the first 28 days. Furthermore, I am not sure that most hospitals will be satisfied to accept from the pensioner the amount which, up to the present, they have accepted from the Government in respect of the period after . the first 28 days in 'hospital. In my opinion the pensioner's position will be more insecure under this proposed provision than it was previously. Some honorable members may contend that there are hospital funds to which pensioners can contribute and from which they can pay their hospital fees. However, I remind those honorable gentlemen that, although these funds guarantee that they will pay for a pensioner's upkeep while he is in hospital, they do not guarantee to secure accommodation for him in a hospital. In spite of the fact that pensioners' fees have been paid out of these funds, the hospitals have never neglected to take from the Pensions Department the contribution that was normally paid under the old provision.

Mr James - But they refunded the amount.

Mr ROSEVEAR - The honorable member's thoughts do not seem to wander beyond the environs of his own electorate, where conditions are different from elsewhere. If he lived in a Sydney electorate he would know that the money is not returned to the pensioner, and the Pensions' Department will tell him that it cannot recover the amount paid to a hospital on behalf of a pensioner, because that is a matter between the pensioner and the hospital. The Minister said that a number of hospitals had agreed to forego the pension payment. That is true, but nearly all of the hospitals mentioned by him are in the Newcastle and northern coal-fields areas, where the great majority of the residents, particularly the members of the Miners Federation, contribute to hospital funds. That is an act of charity on the part of those hospitals in the Newcastle district. Pensioners in that area probably contend that, as the hospitals do not want anything from the Government out of their pensions, they ought to receive full rates while they are in hospital. It is easy to understand their point of view. However, if they resided in other districts where hospitals require pensioners to pay fees, they might look at the matter differently. I know of no agitation in the Sydney area on behalf of this proposed change.

Mr James - Has the honorable member not been approached by the pensioners?


Mr James - I can produce evidence that a deputation of pensioners waited upon the honorable member.

Mr ROSEVEAR - Apparently, the only good reason for this proposed amendment of the law is that it will entail less work for the limited staff of the Pensions Department, because, under it, pension payments will continue as usual, whereas, under the existing provision; there has been some difficulty with regard to the holding up of pensions and the disbursement of different amounts. I hope that the new arrangement will not be looked upon as a. permanent feature of pensions law, but that it will be considered in the nature of a trial. I know that the Minister is trying to do his best for the pensioners, but under the present law a pensioner received payment in full for the first 28 days of his stay in hospital and nobody had the right to make any claims against that payment, whilst, under the proposed arrangement, the hospitals, knowing that a pensioner will be paid throughout his stay, will claim some payment for the first 28 days of his stay. Under the present law, which fixes the rate of contribution, a pensioner knows how much he has to pay after the first 28 days, but in future he will not know how much he will be expected to pay. It is conceivable that, under the proposed arrangement, he will lose more than he would lose under the present system, unless he can strike a hard bargain with the hospital.

Progress reported.

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