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Tuesday, 9 September 2003
Page: 14649

Senator CHRIS EVANS (4:25 PM) —The Health Legislation Amendment (Private Health Insurance Reform) Bill 2003 amends the National Health Act 1953 and the Private Health Insurance Incentives Act 1998. The amendments are designed to streamline the regulation of the private health insurance industry and provide consumers with better value for money. Labor supports these measures in the interests of good management of the private health insurance sector and fair treatment of Australian consumers and because the bill establishes better mechanisms for investigating and acting on any problems in the industry.

At present, registered health benefit organisations are required to submit all rule changes, no matter how insignificant, to the government for approval. This bill replaces this process with a more efficient system of monitoring and compliance. It contains the framework for a set of indicators to be established to ensure that the government retains the ability to effectively monitor the performance of registered health benefit organisations, including any breaches of the National Health Act. It gives the minister a broader range of investigative powers and administrative sanctions which may be used when a registered health benefit organisation, or RHBO, is found to be in breach of the NHA or is failing to meet government objectives—for example, breaching community rating obligations.

Importantly, the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman will be given increased powers to protect consumers by investigating complaints and resolving disputes. For instance, the bill provides that the RHBOs will be required to respond to requests for information or recommendations from the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman within a specified time frame, and the ombudsman will have the power to report the outcomes of an investigation to the minister and make recommendations on ways of dealing with specific issues arising from an investigation. The ombudsman will be required to produce an annual `state of the health funds' report providing important information for government and consumers on how RHBOs are performing and how well they are serving their members. I think senators will agree that some of the work done by the ombudsman in the past has been very helpful to the Senate in its deliberations.

Lastly, the bill makes a number of minor improvements to the Lifetime Health Cover regulations. It establishes a notional annual birth date of 1 July, giving people some leeway before accruing Lifetime Health Cover loadings on their premiums. It provides that the gold card for veterans counts towards hospital cover for the purpose of calculating a Lifetime Health Cover loading, which ensures that our veterans are not unfairly hit with extra charges. New migrants over the age of 30, as well as Australians who are overseas on their notional 31st birthday, will have a fair 12 months to take up hospital cover without being subjected to a Lifetime Health Cover loading. And Australian citizens who have hospital cover and go overseas for longer than 12 months will not be penalised for their time away with a higher loading. These are all sensible measures that improve the regulation of the private health industry and give consumers better value for money and greater transparency. They will, I think, help build a better private health insurance system. For this reason, Labor will be supporting the bill.