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Thursday, 8 February 2007
Page: 8

Mrs MIRABELLA (1:29 PM) —I rise to speak on the Private Health Insurance Bill 2006 and cognate legislation being debated today. I am pleased to speak in support of the principal bill and to oppose the amendment moved by the member for Gellibrand. This bill is designed to make a strong private health insurance sector even stronger, relieving pressure on the public system and giving patients more choice. This government believes in choice. We know that members opposite do not believe in choice, particularly if that choice interferes with their rigid adherence to ideology. They certainly do not believe in choice when it comes to private health insurance and the government’s 30 per cent rebate policy.

Recent Labor Party history is littered with examples of the hatred of the government’s approach to private health insurance—an approach that has seen the incidence of private health cover reach more than 43 per cent, after falling as low as 30 per cent under the previous Labor government. Successive Labor Party health spokesmen and spokeswomen have made all sorts of alarmist comments about the 30 per cent rebate, which is the cornerstone policy of making private health cover more affordable and achievable for Australian individuals and families.

The Private Health Insurance Bill 2006 that we are debating today—and the cognate legislation contained in this suite of legislation on private health insurance—is a significant bill which will greatly improve the private health sector which, by the very nature of health care in this country, alleviates the many, continuing and increasing pressures on the public system. The minister has said that we have an ongoing obligation to revitalise the private health sector and adapt it to changing needs—namely, accepting changing realities in the healthcare sector that are not always primarily focused on hospital admissions. Apropos of this, when the existing regulatory regime was introduced through the National Health Act 1953, the health system was a very different system catering to very different requirements. Preventative care, extended aged care at home, home and community care, day procedures and other areas of health care that are entrenched in our current health system were more or less unheard of when the existing architecture of the regulatory regime was put in place.

These measures for private health insurance were announced by the Minister for Health and Ageing on 26 April 2006. The bills are the product of significant consultation with the industry and amend much of the legislative architecture influencing the private health industry sector, which is generally regarded as requiring significant update and replacement. The Private Health Insurance Bill 2006 will: allow insurers to offer benefits for out-of-hospital services, which will make life easier for patients through avoiding hospital costs and most likely lowering out-of-pocket costs; amend Lifetime Health Cover, namely to allow the removal of the Lifetime Health Cover loading for those who have held private health cover continuously for 10 years; require insurers to provide standard information to consumers; introduce improved safety and quality standards for insured services; and change the focus of regulation from insurance providers to insurance products.

Support for the private health insurance industry remains an article of faith for this government. We have seen private health cover increase. Even in my own electorate of Indi, some 46,000 people benefit from private health cover. So the government has the runs on the board when it comes to making our private health insurance system a success, whilst bolstering resources in the public sector and strengthening Medicare, whereby bulk-billing rates have increased significantly in recent years.

The Labor Party hate private health cover. They want to penalise people who hold it. If they ever got their hands on the government benches they would slash the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate. We just have to look at their past form on this. One former Leader of the Opposition stated that the private health insurance rebate ‘reinforced failure’. The Latham Diaries informed us that ‘the private health insurance rebate would be one of the first things abolished in any Beazley government’. The shadow health spokeswoman at the time, the member for Jagajaga, reportedly said that the Labor Party ‘despises the rebate and wants to poleaxe it’. Another former Leader of the Opposition, the former member for Werriwa, called the rebate ‘an appalling piece of public policy’ and ‘the maddest piece of public policy that one will ever see out of the Commonwealth parliament’.

Then there was the member for Perth—another former health spokesman—who said that the private health insurance rebate was ‘a public policy crime’. The member for Lalor kept us guessing for over a year when she was shadow health spokesperson, but then she begrudgingly said that Labor would keep the rebate. But that was all she said. At the same time, she spruiked the benefits of Medicare Gold—the policy that Barry Jones described as ‘a turkey’ and that Peter Botsman eloquently described as ‘a policy that had the body of a wombat and the head of a donkey’. We have seen the new shadow minister, the member for Gellibrand, reiterate Labor’s approach to continue to adhere to Medicare Gold when she said in a recent interview about Medicare Gold:

... I think that there are some components of it that are really important for us to consider in any rethink about the health system.

The member for Blaxland, who has just spoken on this bill, accused government members of not getting up to support government policy. I have not seen too many members of the opposition getting up and supporting the turkey that is Medicare Gold. Perhaps when they do support this absolutely pathetic excuse that passes for a policy he might then have the right to accuse members on this side of not supporting this government’s policy, which is totally false. Let us not forget that behind Medicare Gold was Labor’s rationale to cull the government’s 30 per cent private health insurance rebate, because the then Leader of the Opposition said in his diaries that Medicare Gold was ‘my plan for killing the private health insurance rebate’. That policy lives on in the veins and beats in the hearts of members of the opposition. The reality is that private health insurance does play a pivotal role in the Australian health system, a basic fact understood and lived on a day-to-day basis by so many Australians but so poorly appreciated by the opposition.

When the Labor Party was last voted out of office, the number of Australians holding private health cover dropped to as low as 30 per cent. Labor Party icon, Graham Richardson, a former health minister, even stated that, for Medicare to survive, the number of Australians with private health cover had to remain above 40 per cent. We know that members opposite—on their past form and on their recent statements—cannot stand the private health insurance sector. But in this instance they should look at reality and at the interests of Australian families and the Australian health system. They should vote with government members in commending these bills to the House, as they are significant pieces of legislation designed to make a strong private health sector even stronger.

The measures we debate today will come into force on 1 April 2007 and they will mean that we will have improved access and services for all Australian consumers and even greater choice and competition in the market. The changes will also translate to a simpler and more effective regulatory regime for the insurers and for the providers. For those reasons I commend the bills to the House.