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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 24

Senator STEPHENS (2:10 PM) —My question is to Senator Patterson, the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Ageing. Does the minister recall the Liberal Party’s 2001 election platform, which stated:

Lifetime health cover ... is ... aimed at making the private health insurance system fairer for everyone, and ... rewarding Australians for long-term membership.

How does the minister explain the case of a couple in the electorate of Newcastle who, after 47 years of private health insurance cover and minimal hospitalisation, now face a premium hike of over 17 per cent—an annual slug to their family budget of over $370? With family budgets hit like this for the last three years, does the minister still believe the system is sustainable?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues) —As I have said, I am not going to comment on individual funds. Some funds have had very low premiums and some funds have had higher increases in some years than in others. But the average has been significantly less than occurred in any one year under Labor. The average increase in private health insurance premiums under Labor was over 10 per cent. In one year alone, the average was 17 per cent, which is totally unsustainable. There was no attempt at all by Labor to assist people with, for example, a 30 per cent rebate. If those people have been members for 47 years—I do not know when they joined—I presume that they would now be eligible for the increased rebate of either 35 per cent or 40 per cent, depending on their age. The other issue is that, given Labor’s policy, they would have had a 30 per cent hike in their premium if the Labor Party had taken away the 30 per cent rebate.

One of the initiatives that we brought into play was the ability for people to test health funds against each other in terms of what they provide. That web site, which is either up or due to be up—I will stand corrected—will enable people to test the various products. Before, there was no way of doing that unless some newspaper listed all the health funds. We wanted to make sure that that was more clearly available to people who are members of health funds.

We have done a number of things to reduce the upward pressure on private health insurance. We saw one bill go through recently. We have also taken pressure off public hospitals. If Senator Stephens is interested, she ought to have a look at what is happening in hospitals in New South Wales in terms of the number of people—as we have heard today, it is an appalling record—going back into hospital because of mistakes. It is three times more than occurs in any other state. I would suggest that the focus might be on how the states run the public health system rather than on private health insurance. We have maintained downward pressure on an area where there are increasing pressures due to increases in technology, increases in wages and increases in all other aspects with regard to the cost of private health insurance. We have actually maintained a 30 per cent decrease in its cost by giving people a private health insurance rebate.

Senator STEPHENS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. The question was about long-term membership. That couple have had 47 years of private health insurance coverage. Is the minister aware of an article in the Bendigo Advertiser on 10 March which reported the case of a retired Heathcote couple receiving advice from their fund that their premium will increase by over $64 per quarter—a rise of 19½ per cent? Given that the average premium increase rubber-stamped by the Minister for Health and Ageing was 7.9 per cent—that was the average across all funds—can the minister advise what percentage of health fund members face premium increases above this approved amount? Is the government satisfied with a health insurance system which continues to slug consumers with cost increases like this year after year?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues) —We have enabled people to move from one health fund to another without penalty. Senator Stephens was not here when, under Labor, if you moved from one health fund to another, you had to wait for 12 months before you were entitled to benefits. That means that people can look around and see which health fund suits them. I would suggest to people if they are not happy with their health fund to go and have a look at the other health funds which may offer a better deal for the sort of situation they are in. I remind people again that, under Labor, private health insurance went up by over 11 per cent on average every year and, in one case, by an average of 17 per cent. It was unsustainable and they did not have any assistance. They did not have a 30 per cent rebate, nor did older people have the offer of increased assistance to pay their private health insurance.