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Wednesday, 12 February 2014
Page: 191

Mr GILES (Scullin) (12:16): I rise to make a brief contribution in support of the shadow minister for health's second reading amendment to the Private Health Insurance Legislation Amendment Bill 2013. As the member for Kingston just indicated, this amendment will put this government to its proof in terms of competition—a value often espoused by members opposite—and clarifying the support for consumers in this industry.

The bill amends the Private Health Insurance Act 2007 to make clear that a single rebate adjustment factor to be determined in accordance with the private health insurance incentives rules will be applied to all rebates. The bill amends the implementation of the indexation of the rebate by applying a single rebate adjustment factor to all types of insurance products. I note the Minister for Health described this as a move to redress implementation concerns in this legislation. This should make it easier for consumers to understand and cheaper for private health insurers to administer. I will speak to the questions of consumers later. Private health insurers, including small insurers, have also argued that these changes would be easier to implement. I understand that is an important and significant consideration to be borne in mind.

Labor stand for universal access to health care. We are proud to be the party of Medicare, which is 30 years old this month—a birthday all Australians have celebrated. The most vulnerable Australians must be able to access the highest quality of care available based on need not financial capacity. Today of all days we must recognise this when we have come together in a bipartisan manner to work towards closing the gap on Indigenous health outcomes.

Labor also supports a sustainable private health insurance sector. I note that, despite what was said by members opposite when they were in opposition and indeed today in this debate, when Labor was last in government the number of people with private health insurance was at its highest rate in Australia's history. The means testing of the private health insurance rebate that Labor introduced in government meant simply that there was more money available to invest in life-saving cancer drugs and to build health infrastructure, like the network of regional integrated cancer centres. In short, there was more money available to get maximum value from our health expenditure to deliver better and fairer health outcomes for Australians.

Despite the constant negativity of the coalition in opposition, people did not cancel their private health insurance in droves. It was quite the reverse. Instead, more people than ever have private health insurance, both in percentage terms and in real numbers. I am grateful for the member for Wakefield's contribution on this point.

Labor recognises it is important to have a sustainable private health insurance sector in Australia, as I have said. The indexation of the rebate, the concession, was introduced by Labor in order to make more money available to invest in health. It is expected to realise about $700 million in savings over the forward estimates. Importantly, this legislation does not change the amount of money the government will save on the private health insurance rebate; nor does it alter the objective of the former Labor government's intended measure. It simply changes the way private health insurers make the calculation to apply. The intent is that this will require less administration on behalf of those insurers, and that is something to be encouraged.

Labor will always support measures that enhance competition. This is consistent with our position that we need to have a sustainable private health insurance sector in this country working cooperatively, as the member for Kingston said a minute ago, with the public system. When we are talking about private health insurance we cannot but mention the highest increase to private health insurance premiums in a decade that took place on 23 December last year. There was an announcement made—absent consultation—at a time when most Australians were concentrating on other matters. This evidences very little concern for consumers.

Now I turn to the real concern for consumers, a matter squarely addressed by the amendment moved by the shadow minister. If this bill will make it easier for consumers to understand their policy then that is to be welcomed, but the government has not as yet adequately demonstrated how it will stand up for consumers. This area of private health insurance is complex for consumers with complicated products. It presents real challenges that will require some working through. The amendment proposed by the member for Ballarat draws this out. It asks them to demonstrate what additional competition is in the interests of Australian consumers. That is a fair enough proposition, so it should be supported by the government.

Health was a priority for Labor in government and it always has been. Of course it is a priority for us now. We are committed to a world-class universal healthcare system today and into the future. On the other hand, this government is yet to demonstrate its positive agenda for health—in particular, its real commitment to our public hospital system and to Medicare as a universal safety net, a matter canvassed before the good burghers of Griffith in recent days. Instead, we have seen what appears to be the privatisation by stealth of Medibank Private, absent any consideration of its impact on competition—a matter very relevant to the broader debate this bill touches upon.

With the Commission of Audit about to hand down its findings that will shape the next federal budget, people in Scullin are anxious. They are anxious about health care; they are anxious about Medicare. They see the difference between Labor's commitment to health and the coalition's. They see it in a physical form with the GP superclinic in Mill Park, opened last year and delivering important health services. They see it in the Teaching, Training and Research Precinct at the Northern Hospital in Epping—a fantastic initiative of the Labor government that will deliver high quality services and world-class research and will do great things to keep the best quality health professionals working in the outer suburbs and not draining into city centres. They also see the work of our Medicare Local for the northern suburbs of Melbourne—a great body which remains under threat.

In supporting the opposition shadow minister's amendment to this bill, we are broadly supportive of the principles it embodies to make administrative adjustments to sound Labor legislation to release more funds to deliver better health outcomes for Australians. The amendment seeks to clarify this and to put the government again to its proof on the question of competition and to ensure that the interests of consumers of private health insurance products are at the centre of this debate. But we cannot forget the broader remit of the health debate that is before us because that is what is on the minds of the people I represent in this place.