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Wednesday, 13 November 2002
Page: 6230

Senator REID (2:59 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Health and Ageing. Will the minister inform the Senate of the latest figures showing the number of Australians with private health insurance. Is the minister aware of any alternative policies or of any recent comments concerning the future of the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —Thank you, Senator Reid, for your question. The September figure for Australian private health insurance has remained stable, unlike under Labor when it declined rapidly and was unsustainable, as former Senator Richardson said. Although the proportion of the population covered went from 44 to 44.1 per cent, the number of Australians covered actually grew by 4,268, to 8,000,709. This demonstrates the success of the determination of our government to restore the balance between the public and private health systems. This is just the latest in a sequence of data that shows clearly the incredible success of the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate, Lifetime Health Cover and no gaps. Last year, 2000-01, we saw for the first time in history a fall in the number of public hospital admissions, by almost 5,000—almost a 0.1 per cent decline. At the same time, the number of private hospital admissions went up by over 12 per cent. Nobody can say that that is not taking a load off the public hospitals. Importantly, these figures do not include the real impact of the Lifetime Health Cover initiative.

Clearly we have restored balance to our health system and taken pressure off Medicare and the public hospital system. I was in Queensland last week—in fact I was in Queensland twice last week—visiting a small private hospital where there is now an after hours centre operating for general practitioners in the area. The director of that hospital, a very impressive young woman, said that had these reforms and changes not come in the hospital would not have been there; the Uniting Church was thinking of dropping out, the hospital would not have been there, would not have been providing this service to those people on the coast and would not have been able to offer a service for after hours care that relieves the doctors in that area and enables them to roster and to have time off. So there was a double impact. There are some hidden benefits of the fact that the private hospital system is viable.

Clearly we have restored balance to our health care system and taken pressure off Medicare and the public hospital system. Over half of procedures are now performed in private hospitals: half of the procedures for chemotherapy, 53 per cent of major procedures for breast cancer, 56 per cent of cardiac valve procedures and 60 per cent of joint replacement and limb re-attachments. So there is clear evidence that there has been a freeing up of public hospitals, and in addition there was a $3 billion windfall to the states when we did not claw back money we said we would claw back as private health insurance went up.

The Labor Party needs to decide whether it supports the 30 per cent rebate. The families who get a rebate of about $750 a year will be very interested to know whether the Labor Party supports it. The people who are waiting for elective surgery, who were putting off having surgery that was not lifesaving or was not seen to be urgent and who were living with the pain, for example, of severe bunions reducing their mobility will be interested to know what the Labor Party is going to do about supporting private health insurance. Let me say that on this side of the chamber we support a strong public system and a strong private system. We believe that is the best way to ensure that we get the best health outcomes for all Australians.

Senator Hill —Mr President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.