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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 890

Mr BALDWIN (Paterson) (17:47): I rise tonight to address the Fairer Private Health Insurances Bill 2011, the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives (Medicare Levy Surcharge) Bill 2011 and the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives (Medicare Levy Surcharge—Fringe Benefits) Bill 2011. I am pained to even call the package by its name. This package of bills is not designed to make things fairer for Australians and nor is it designed to make things better in our national healthcare system. This legislation is designed to cut the healthcare rebate that families and singles are eligible for. That means nothing less than private health insurance becoming more expensive for working families in this nation. That will compound on increases in the cost of living across the board.

We are battling a healthcare crisis in this country. Public waiting lists have been spiralling out of control and now this government wants to cut private healthcare insurance to save a few dollars. The hallmark of this government is economic mismanagement. This is a Labor government that is happy to spend $50 billion on a National Broadband Network that has only 4,000 customers after five years. It is happy to spend $2 billion on its border protection blowout, including cigarettes for detainees. And yet, when it comes to the lives and wellbeing of the people of Australia, this is where the ALP thinks they should be saving money.

Just a couple of months ago, in November, I read a story in the Newcastle Herald by Jacqui Jones entitled 'Hunter surgery schedule blowout'. It is important that I quote this article to the parliament. It read:

Surgery waiting lists have blown out at some Hunter hospitals to almost four times longer than the national average, with waits increasing 20 times over in the past year for some procedures, the latest data shows.

The most recent information on hospitals’ performance will be made publicly available today through the federal government’s MyHospitals website.

It is based on information provided by public health departments to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

A Newcastle Herald analysis of data for Hunter hospitals showed blowouts in waiting times for surgery in 2010-11, compared with 2009-10, and waits that were longer than national averages.

At Calvary Mater Newcastle, the median wait for plastic surgery was 93 days in 2010-11, compared with the national average of 24 days.

This was up from a wait of four days in 2009-10, and 22 days nationally.

Waiting times for gall bladder removal and hernia repair increased over the year and were longer than national averages.

At John Hunter Hospital, eye surgery patients waited twice as long as their national counterparts.

Delays were long for cataract extraction, with the 282-day median wait (90 days nationally) in 2010-11 up from 176 days (86 days nationally) in 2009-10.

Orthopaedic patients took longer to get to surgery, including for hip and knee replacements, at John Hunter Hospital than patients booked at hospitals elsewhere in Australia.

At Maitland Hospital, orthopaedic lists blew out to a 234-day median wait (national 64 days) in 2010-11, compared with 169 days (national 62 days) in 2009-10.

Increases were also experienced within the year and beyond Australia-wide trends for gynaecological surgery and haemorrhoid removal at Maitland.

The waiting times at Kurri Kurri Hospital for ear, nose and throat surgery and at Belmont Hospital for a hysterectomy increased over the year and were longer than national averages.

Here we have in the Hunter people waiting longer than ever before and yet this Labor government wants to force more people onto the public health system, thereby making the situation much worse. We have people in the Hunter waiting up to four times longer for surgery than their interstate counterparts. And yet all of the members from the Hunter—the member for Newcastle, Sharon Grierson; the member for Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon; the member for Charlton, Greg Combet; and the member for Shortland, Jill Hall—are going to push this legislation through. And it looks like they will be joined by Rob Oakeshott, the member for Lyne. They are all just champing at the bit to support the economic mismanagement of this Labor government, which will be to the detriment of people in our region. This really should be a no-brainer. Even the Labor Party should be able to see how destructive this legislation will be. However, I will spell it out, just in case they have not worked it out yet: this legislation will make private health insurance more expensive for 2.4 million Australians. For some of those people it will mean an increase in premiums of 43 per cent. That is a cost of almost 1½ times what they are already paying. Deloitte have done the figures and, under this legislation, 1.6 million Australians are likely to drop their private health cover over the next five years. And, of those who do not drop it altogether, a further 4.3 million will downgrade the level of their coverage. The minister has not even tried to deny this—in fact, she has admitted that people will drop their cover. When coupled with increases in the costs of living, including groceries, rent, power and gas because of this Labor government's reckless carbon tax, yet to come, this is just another attack on families and on their budgets and it is a thing they just cannot afford. According to this Labor government, if you work hard to provide private health care for yourself and your family, you should be punished—you are doing too well for yourself and you are not paying enough.

We only have to take a step back and look at why private health insurance rebates were provided in the first place to understand why the current system works so well. When the Medicare levy surcharge and lifetime health cover were introduced under the previous coalition government, private health insurance coverage increased from 34 per cent in 1996 to 44 per cent in 2007. Today private hospitals treat two in five of all patients in Australia, which accounts for some 3.5 million patients every single year. If those patients do not have private health cover, that is an extra 3.5 million patients for the public health system to cope with—or not cope with, which is more likely the case.

I want to put this into perspective in my own electorate of Paterson. In my electorate there are 46,184 people aged 18 or over with private health insurance, according to the figures published on 1 January 2011. That is around half the adults in my electorate. According to national statistics, 13 per cent of people will drop private health cover under this legislation within just five years. A further 36 per cent of people will downgrade their cover. In Paterson that equates to 6,004 people dropping their private health insurance altogether and 16,626 people downgrading their cover. If just half those people who drop their cover need surgery, that is an extra 3,000 people who are going to be forced into the Hunter health system waiting list—and that is just in Paterson alone; that is not taking into account the electorates of Hunter, Shortland, Charlton, Newcastle or Lyne, which also rely on the Hunter's hospitals. And that does not include those people who have reduced their cover and can no longer go into private hospitals for certain procedures. I know I have just gone through a lot of numbers, but it is important that we understand the real, on-the-ground impacts of this destructive legislation: an extra 3,000 people from Paterson waiting in line for surgery, pushing back other patients and being pushed back themselves, is the real impact.

So it is no surprise to me that, with reckless money-making moves like this one, the Australian public does not trust the Prime Minister or her Labor colleagues when it comes to the economy. In fact, a poll taken last Saturday and published in today's Australianshows that the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, is far more trusted with money matters than the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. He has a nine-point lead on the question of handling the economy, with the Prime Minister having fallen by 14 percentage points since August 2010. Why would the public trust this government on the economy? After all, it is the same government who took a $20 billion surplus and turned it into a $96 billion deficit. This is the same government that takes a solution each and every time and turns it into a problem. There were years that passed without a single boat arrival under the former coalition government—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms K Livermore ): Order! The member is straying from the content of the bill. I call you back to the bill.

Mr BALDWIN: I am showing a point on economic mismanagement, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: It needs to be relevant to the bill.

Mr BALDWIN: With this economic mismanagement we now have 15,000 people illegally arriving by boat, putting further pressure on the health system. Now the ALP want to do the same thing to private health insurance. They want to create a problem where there isn't one.

Of course, we also know that you just cannot trust this government. What we keep getting is more and more examples of this government's dishonesty—a phoney, whatever-it-takes approach by government. After all, it was this Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who said that there would be no carbon tax under a government she led—and yet we are set for the carbon tax to be introduced from 1 July. It was the same person, when the shadow minister for health, who said in the Weekend Australianin a letter to the editor, in her own writing:

The truth is I never had a secret plan to scrap the private health insurance rebate and, contrary to Mr Latham's diaries, do not support such a claim. For all Australians who want to have private health insurance the private health insurance rebate would have remained under a Labor government. I gave an iron-clad guarantee of that during the election. The difference between Tony 'rock-solid, iron-clad' Abbott and me is that, when I make an iron-clad commitment, I actually intend on keeping it.

In a further letter to the editor of the Courier Mailon 23 September 2004 she said:

Your correspondent Russell McGregor should have no concerns that Labor will erode or abolish the 30 per cent government rebate for private health insurance. Labor is committed to the maintenance of this rebate and I have given an iron-clad guarantee on that on a number of occasions.

That was from Julia Gillard, opposition health spokesperson. In fact, my favourite quote is: 'I grow tired of saying this: Labor is committed to the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate,' in a letter to the editor of the Hobart Mercury.

It is just not the Prime Minister, who was then the shadow health minister who gave such guarantees. We only need to look at the current Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, who, as Leader of the Opposition in 2007, wrote to Dr Armitage of the Australian Health Insurance and said:

Thank you for your letter of 29 October 2007 seeking clarification on Federal Labor's policy regarding private health insurance. Both my Shadow Minister for Health, Nicola Roxon, and I have made it clear on many occasions this year that Federal Labor is committed to retaining the existing private health insurance rebates, including the 30 per cent general rebate and the 35 and 40 per cent rebates for older Australians.

Federal Labor will also maintain Lifetime Health Cover and the Medicare Levy Surcharge.

Labor will maintain the existing framework for regulating private health insurance, including the process for approval of premium increases. Zero per cent premium adjustment is not Labor policy.

I understand Nicola Roxon's office has also confirmed with you that Federal Labor has no plans to require private health insurance funds to make equivalent payments to public hospitals for patients who elect to be treated as private patients.

I trust this allays your concerns. Federal Labor values its relationship with the private health insurance sector and we look forward to continuing this regardless of the outcome on November 24.

Yours sincerely

Kevin Rudd

Federal Labor Leader

Member for Griffith

Nicola Roxon, then Minister for Health and Ageing, was quoted in the Age on 24 February 2009 as saying:

The Government is firmly committed to retaining the existing private health insurance rebates …

Yet less than three months later, on 12 May 2009, the insurance rebate changes were announced in the budget.

This is a government that says one thing and does another. This is a government that finds a solution and creates a problem—over and over again. We are into 2012 and it is clear that this government neither respects nor values its relationship with the people of Australia who are paying for private health insurance and contributing to support a reduction in pressure on the public health system. All this government seems to want to do, in fact its whole agenda, is to claw back money from working families to prop up its failed economic management position, a position that has created record debt.

This is a desperate move by a desperate government that has squandered the dollars of millions of Australians on wasted programs like the insulation tragedy and the school halls rip-off. I say to you, Madam Deputy Speaker Livermore, to each and every Labor member in this place and to the Independents: the health of our fellow Australians is far more important than all of the other programs that this government has wasted money on. This government will see, under its stewardship, a blow-out in the waiting lists in the public health system. This government will see, under its stewardship, private hospitals close because of a lack of patients. This government will see, under its stewardship, the health standards of the people of Australia deteriorate because it mismanaged the economy and saw as a sacrifice those hard-working Australians who take out private health insurance and who reduce the pressure on the public system. It should be the government's agenda, as it was under the previous coalition government and as it was stated to be by the previous Labor opposition, to support private health insurance to make it affordable for working families. That is why I call on the Independents to refuse to support this legislation that will hurt the people in their constituencies. I reject these bills as presented to the House.