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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 69

Senator MARK BISHOP (2:42 PM) —My question is to Senator Hill, the Minister representing the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. Can the minister confirm that veterans with accepted war-caused disabilities in Tasmania are now being transported to the mainland for treatment at high cost to the taxpayer and great distress to the veterans because medical specialists in Tasmania refuse to accept the gold card? Further, is the minister able to inform the Senate how many veterans and war widows have been transported from Tasmania for medical treatment in the last year, and at what cost? Is the minister aware that, even after the forthcoming fee increases, schedule fees for the gold card will be up to 25 per cent lower than for private health funds and, as a consequence, it is unlikely that specialists in Tasmania or any other state will change their attitude to the gold card? Minister, why is the government so unwilling to honour its commitment to care for sick veterans?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —I am aware of the media release of 6 December by the State President of the Tasmanian RSL, Ian Kennett, concerning Tasmanian specialists not accepting the gold card. A number of specialists in Tasmania are no longer seeing veterans under the gold card arrangements because they perceive the fees to be inadequate. This situation is disappointing. However, veterans in Tasmania still have access to specialists in the majority of medical fields. The accessibility of medical specialists in Tasmania is a statewide work force issue and not limited to the veteran community.

In the 2004-05 budget the Australian government committed an additional $157.6 million over four years to increase fees for medical specialists. Currently medical specialists treating eligible veterans receive 100 per cent of the Medicare schedule fee. From 1 January 2005, specialists will receive an additional 15 per cent for consultations and 20 per cent for procedures provided to eligible veterans. The initiatives will go a long way towards addressing this situation. The department will transport to the nearest centre any veteran or war widow who requires specialist medical attention where no specialist is available locally. I take this opportunity to indicate that any veteran having difficulty finding a specialist may contact the Tasmanian state office on 1800 555 254 for assistance. I thank the honourable senator for the question.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Years ago there was a government which used to transport people who committed offences to Tasmania. Apparently now we transport people who have served their country to the mainland! In that context, is the minister aware that the withdrawal of specialists' acceptance of the veterans gold card has been a major problem in the veterans portfolio for over two years? Can the minister advise what attention the Minister for Veterans' Affairs is giving to this major problem in her current portfolio and when she might give it priority over and above the apparent pressing business from her previous responsibility of regional pork barrelling?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —We cannot of course force specialists to treat veterans, although I am pleased to say that most do and they accept that as part of their contribution to our community as a whole and are very proud to do so. What is the government doing? As I just said to the honourable senator, although obviously he did not listen, we are putting in an extra $157.6 million over four years to increase fees to medical specialists to encourage them to continue to provide these services. If specialists in the vicinity of the veteran are unwilling to provide the service, we will facilitate the veteran to receive that service at the nearest possible location. That is what this government is doing. Rather than carping and whingeing about helping veterans, we are actually putting money behind the gold card. (Time expired)