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Shadow Minister welcomes the Government's inquiry into the private health insurance industry, but says it should be an open, public inquiry and include a consumer nominee; concern about funding cut-backs for public hospitals

DAVID PEMBROKE: Joining us in the studio is the Opposition health spokesman, Michael Lee. Mr Lee, Mr Howard, speaking on 2UE earlier this afternoon did raise the question: Why didn't Labor do the same thing during its 13 years in government?

MICHAEL LEE: Well, first of all, David, I welcome the Prime Minister's intervention, the second occasion within 24 hours. We think that is further admission of the fact that the Government's policy is unravelling before our eyes. Now, the great difference between the Howard Government's policy on health care and that during the days of the Labor Government was that this Government is offering a $1.7 billion tax concession to people who take out private health insurance.

I, for the life of me, don't understand why Dr Wooldridge didn't bring in the health funds, sit them down at the bargaining table and try to extract some concession from them in return for this $1.7 billion tax concession. And what's really caused us to have the Prime Minister intervene is that Dr Wooldridge has been asleep at the wheel. He's had six months to come to grips with his responsibilities; he's had six months when he hasn't properly known what his own department is doing; and, if ever you wanted evidence that this Government is not performing, is the Prime Minister's description of him as one of the success stories of the Government.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Well, we'll come to those substantive issues in a moment, but really, the original question still stands: Why didn't you do it? You had 13 years to have a look at the system; why didn't you do it? Is it only because of the $1.7 billion which is to be paid over the four years?

MICHAEL LEE: Well, I think, David, that given that this industry is receiving this great benefit directly from Government policy, it's reasonable for the community to ask the Government to have a public inquiry into this industry, and that's why we welcome the Prime Minister's intervention today. We would ask for two alternations, and that is that, first of all, that this inquiry be open and conducted in public, so we don't get all of the industry groups - the doctors, the hospitals and the health funds - all pushing their own barrow behind closed doors.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Well, I think he has promised that.

MICHAEL LEE: Well, there's certainly nothing in the Prime Minister's statement that says that there will be an open inquiry, a public inquiry. And the second request that we'd make to the Prime Minister is that there be a consumers' nominee on this review, so that there's someone there to look after the interests of the contributors, the people who ultimately pay for the health insurance premiums.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Will you now pass the tax rebate through the Senate?

MICHAEL LEE: We've made it clear all along that it's the Government who's mucked this up and we think it would be wrong to punish the patients and the contributors because the Government has mucked up its own health policy. What we've tried to do is to exert as much pressure as we can on the Government to get two concessions: first of all, the inquiry into the health industry, and that's what we've achieved today; the second initiative .. the second concession we're trying to extract from the Government is for the Government to overturn its decision in the Budget to cut back Federal funding for public hospitals. Everyone in Australia knows that if you're providing a tax concession for people with private health insurance, that helps the private hospitals and people in private medicine. What I'm concerned about is the waiting lists and the delays that are taking place in our public hospitals, and it's ridiculous for the Howard Government to cut back Federal funding for State public hospitals by $310 million, and that's what we'd like to see reversed.

DAVID PEMBROKE: So if they don't reverse that decision on public hospital funding, you won't pass the tax rebate?

MICHAEL LEE: No, we've made it clear, just because the Government mucks up its health policy, we're not going to penalise the patients and the contributors. What we're going to do is, every day that Parliament sits, we're going to expose the fact that this Howard Government has cut back Federal funding for public hospitals, and every time you hear of a person who can't get treatment in a public hospital, send the blame to John Howard, he's the person who's cut back funding for public hospitals.

DAVID PEMBROKE: All right. Just a final question. Russell Schneider has fingered the private hospitals as the ones who are the baddies in all of this. Do you agree with him?

MICHAEL LEE: Well, I suspect we're going to see, not only Russell, but the hospitals and the AMA all taking pot-shots at each other. What I'd like to also see is that there's someone there to speak up for the consumers, and that's why I'd like to see at least one of the members of this Productivity Commission inquiry being there to look after the interests of the contributors.

DAVID PEMBROKE: All right, Michael Lee, thank you very much for speaking to P.M. tonight.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: And the Shadow Federal Health Minister, Michael Lee, there in Canberra's studio with David Pembroke.