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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1494

Senator COLBECK (2:26 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Ageing, Senator Ludwig. Will the minister guarantee that no Australian will have to wait even longer for public hospital treatment as a result of Labor’s changes to the Medicare surcharge levy policy?

Senator LUDWIG (Minister for Human Services) —The 2008-09 budget will increase the Medicare levy surcharge thresholds, which will provide significant relief for those on average incomes. That is what it will do. The government maintains support for a strong and sustainable private health insurance industry. For the benefit of the opposition, from 1 July 2008, the thresholds for the Medicare levy surcharge will increase from $50,000 to $100,000 for singles and from $100,000 to $150,000 for families. The opposition argue that $50,000 is somehow a high-income wage. I defy anyone to support the contention that it is in fact a high-income wage.

As for the impact on private health insurance membership and premiums, it is anticipated that some people who may have taken out private health insurance to avoid paying the surcharge will cease their coverage. Should private health insurance companies seek to increase their premiums, they will be closely scrutinised by the government to ensure that premium adjustments are the minimum needed to maintain solvency requirements and that the funds can meet their obligations to members. The government is focused on ensuring that Australians have a choice of healthcare services and continues to have policies in place that encourage individuals to purchase private health insurance, such as private health insurance rebates and Lifetime Health Cover.

The other issue is: will there be increased pressure on public hospitals? As part of its Health and Hospital Reform Plan, this government is making substantial investments to bolster hospitals. There was $1 billion announced at COAG for public hospital services in 2008-09—$600 million over four years to reduce elective surgery waiting lists. Look at the record of the opposition when they were in government. You talk about public hospitals—it is about giving people choice. When somebody takes out a private health insurance policy just to avoid getting hit with a tax slug, that is not a real choice. There are people out there who pay for a $500 policy not because they want it but because it means paying less than they would in tax. There are people who, we expect, will stop taking out insurance. We are strong supporters of a mixed health system, both public and private.

I cannot believe the opposition is suggesting that people earning—and I mentioned this earlier—a below-average wage should be paying this tax slug. Let me throw out a challenge to the Liberal Party to find anyone earning $51,000 who would call themselves a high-income earner. What really has put pressure on public hospitals is the previous Liberal government’s cutting $1 billion from public hospitals and failing to tackle the GP shortage. That is the position that they left this government with. They know clearly that is what the position is. And quite clearly federal Labor will also maintain Lifetime Health Cover and the Medicare levy surcharge. The Prime Minister has kept his word on this. We said we would keep the Medicare levy surcharge and we have. (Time expired)