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Thursday, 25 March 1999
Page: 4390

Mr CADMAN (11:37 AM) —Governments for many years have struggled with the health policy of this nation because the fact of the matter is the price and cost of health is rising much more quickly than the price and cost of other commodities in our society. Modern health techniques, drugs and methods of poor health management have improved so vastly, and the nation and its people want to have the very best, particularly the children of the nation deserve the very best. Governments have struggled to retain the costs of health, so the balance is drawn between obtaining the best and limiting the cost of health.

The Australian Labor Party have adopted an approach of almost complete socialised medicine. I went back to the last election and found in their policy a commitment to improve Medicare, to open Medicare offices that had been closed and to maintain the private health system. But when you examine that policy, they indicated they would not unscramble some of the things they claimed that the government had done, and they dealt also with pharmaceuticals.

It was very much, `We were right. We should never have lost the election in 1996. We are going to go back to that and continue the policies of those days.' Those policies have been demonstrated to be a failure. The health bills continue to rise. They become more and more expensive for the nation to cover, and we have a declining level of private insurance, a level that is putting and has put a greater load on the private health system. The states suffer. Public hospitals suffer. The fact is that the whole medical and hospital services are confronted with difficulties under the policies of the Labor Party.

Over a period of time we have had highly paid Labor Party ministers coming into this House and boasting that they were not insured. I remember former Minister for Health Neal Blewett being proud of the fact that he carried no private health insurance, and his wife also had a government job, if I remember rightly. He boasted of the fact that he and his wife made no contribution other than the normal contribution to health, despite their high incomes. We also had the Prime Minister of the day making those same claims.

It is not an easy task, and the Labor Party found that out. We have a Minister for Health and Aged Care who has applied himself relentlessly to the difficulties and the complexities of these problems. Point after point he is gaining success and gradually changing the system, despite the problems and costs of it. Some of the initiatives of this government have been to recognise by the payment of a 30 per cent rebate those people who are privately insured and to encourage those who want to be sure that there can be no hold-ups or hang-ups with their health payments.

I do not know what the member for Calwell, the member for Menzies or any other member in the House has found in their electorate, but I have found that elderly people think of their health coverage first. It does not matter whether they have very low incomes or moderately high incomes, being certain that they are going to get coverage from their local doctor, a place in the local hospital and the best treatment is their number one concern. Health insurance is really related to a matter of wishing to have certainty and protection against ill health.

The notorious gap has made that more and more doubtful because people have not been able to assess the increasingly high charges they have had to meet for procedures in hospitals. Bills of $1,000 or $1,200 to cover the gap for medical procedures are not unheard of, and elderly people with meagre savings find that amount very difficult to cover, to prepare for, to save for. So, even reluctantly, some of those people who carry the burden of poor health have had to drop their health insurance. The government is seeking to restore all that. The government wants people to regain that sense of certainty and to feel that they will have the choices that they want in health services, and the 30 per cent rebate is one way of doing that.

Another way that the government has implemented is to have no gap or to have a known gap so people know exactly what they are going to be up for before a procedure is carried out in a hospital. The concept of the minister is to have one bill covering all procedures at the hospital. That is an innovation. The Labor Party could have done it years ago. It took a Liberal Party to come in and a Liberal minister, Dr Wooldridge, to say, `We need to change these things and take the uncertainties out of the system.' That is what he has done and that is what this government has done.

The Labor Party, with their meagre policy on health, after years of attempting to solve the problem with ministers who were ideologically committed to a public health system and could not countenance a public system—Graham Richardson made some small attempt, but he was squashed after a period—did nothing about private coverage and making people feel certain in the health system. They just jacked up the cost year after year and it became more and more messy.

One has only to look at the impact in the state of New South Wales to understand precisely what the ramifications of the combination of a Commonwealth Labor government and a state Labor government produces. In the current election campaign the policies are markedly different between the parties. You have Kerry Chikarovski out there saying, `We're going to build new hospitals and restore those that have been pulled down by the Labor Party.'

Dr Southcott interjecting

Mr CADMAN —The `Sir Humphrey' hospitals, I call them—empty wards because they are cheaper to run.

Dr Southcott —No cockroaches.

Mr CADMAN —We are getting rid of the cockroaches. There are some around Macquarie Street too at the moment, and they will go also. The cockroaches in the hospitals will go. The Sir Humphrey hospitals will go. It is the Sir Humphrey argument—`We cannot move patients in, Minister. That will complicate things. It will make the hospitals unprofitable. But we need to keep the hospitals open with staff and beds in order to run the system.' And that is the system in New South Wales in many hospitals. In both the Northmead and the Hornsby hospitals in my area that is certainly the case.

The Labor Party policies at the last election do not give them any claim in this House to do anything but say, `We want to revert to the former system.' I am pleased to hear that the Labor Party will not be opposing this legislation. It is about time that they gave the government of the day a go to resolve some of the problems. I remember that in March of last year Kim Beazley was pretty critical of the government's private health insurance, labelling it a failure. But now he says he will retain it. During the election campaign he said he would retain it. Mr Beazley, the Leader of the Opposition, said, `They have put in place a $1.7 billion failure in relation to private health funds.' That is what he said. But then he went on to say that he would retain that failure. That is some assessment he must have made to be able to come to such a quick judgment of what comprises a failure.

This legislation forms part of the government's provision of the 30 per cent rebate for private health insurance, and it is also working hard to reform the industry. As I have said, the minister, step by step, is a minister of reform. The government wants to provide an environment where health funds can offer better products and be more responsive to their customers. I have seen in the last few days the comments in the press about the Silver Cross Insurance organisation and the prospect it may hold to offer variety and a greater comfort to a wider range of people than that which is offered by some of the current insurance services—and that is part of the government's plan and part of the government's scheme.

The ALP voted against the 30 per cent rebate when we introduced it and are often voting against more flexible insurance pro ducts. They have decided not to vote against these current reforms. Australians do want choice in their health system. Private health insurance provides this choice, and a strong private sector does relieve the pressure on the public sector. It is the simplest and most commonsense way of solving the problems of the public sector. The government of the Labor Party tried the other method for years. We have for a few years tried doing it this different way, and already you can point to the success—greater flexibility in the system, greater certainty in the management of the insurance funds, more doctors into rural areas. The successes are there. It takes a long time to turn this process around, but there is the movement towards a more successful system and one that all Australians want.

People in private funds who will take advantage of the 30 per cent rebate come from all walks of life and all levels of income. To try to put a means test on all of this or to try to play around with it, as was proposed originally, is completely wrong and impossible.

This bill is basically in three parts. The 30 per cent rebate is part of it, but the registration of organisations and other related matters are also part of the bill. The establishment of the Private Health Insurance Administration Council will transfer a number of factors—registration or cancellation of registration and merger proposals—from the minister to the council.

This bill restricts new registration to companies whose primary purpose is the operation of a health benefits fund, and it requires any current registered organisations that are unincorporated associations to become incorporated as a company within a period established by the minister—all responsible and sensible business administration. There are incentives that allow the Health Insurance Commission 14 days to either grant or refuse the claim for an incentive payment and which provide for internal reviews by the Health Insurance Commission of a decision to refuse to pay a claim—all of these things are improvements.

The bill also enables a person who has paid a premium or whose employer as a fringe benefit has paid their premium to register for the premiums deductions scheme—all sensible things. It removes the requirements for annual registration in the premiums deductions scheme for individuals in health funds. It introduces a new section that provides that the minister may revoke the status of a participating fund. It requires a health fund, when given notice, to produce a certificate in writing from a registered company auditor as to the correctness of its accounts—all of these are sensible management things that should have been done years ago. And here we are in 1999 under a Liberal government, a Liberal minister, making changes that should have been in place 10 years ago or longer.

I want to say how strongly I support the changes the government is making in health in Australia. With the cooperation of the states we can go further, and with a willingness of this House and, particularly, the Senate we can move ahead to fix and to allay the fears that the Australian people have about the costs and the difficulties within the health system. We have made changes. They have been good changes. That is the insurance part of it.

There is one area of health that does concern me, and that is the abuse of drugs in Australia. I know this bill does not cover those issues, but I just want to briefly congratulate the minister on the way in which the government is moving ahead in this area.

Mr Kerr —On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker: the honourable member has ranged from gratuitous advice to the New South Wales government to now self-admittedly departing from the subject matter of this bill. Perhaps, given his confession, he might be brought back to the subject matter of the bill.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Andrews) —In response to the point of order raised by the honourable member for Denison, I note that the title of the bill includes the words `and for related purposes', which he will know gives members some scope in relation to what they say. But, having said that, I remind the honourable member for Mitchell of the subject matter of the debate before the House at the moment.

Mr CADMAN —I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I notice that after two sentences the opposition is quick to intervene, because the fact is that it had no drugs strategy for the young people of Australia and it is embarrassed to have these matters raised in a broad health debate in the chamber with the minister. It is an embarrassment to the Labor Party.

This bill deals with a wide range of issues and, unfortunately, the treatment of young people who are addicted to drugs is part of our health system and part of the cost of health in Australia today. There are parts of this bill that could be related to any and every illness and any and every health payment. The member at the table knows that. The fact that I raise this matter, which I think is of concern for all members, is an indication that not only do we deal with the issues of health education in these areas, both in the broad medical sense of the value of health insurance, what it can achieve and the need for greater choice—that is a matter of education mostly undertaken by the funds, but for which I believe the government also has a responsibility—but also education in the dangers of drug abuse should be part of a health education program. The two should be linked because they are a cost to the nation—a dreadful cost in one instance, and an unnecessarily high cost in other instances.

So the comprehensive program that the government has produced to change health insurance and to reverse many of the difficulties created by successive Labor governments is to be commended. The comprehensive program that I would like to see go into place for the control and management of narcotics in Australia has started. That, too, can go further and will go further. Tough on Drugs is a good program and one that has a very strong health component. It is the responsibility of the minister at the table. I want to commend the minister and encourage him to go harder and faster, because Australia needs the best system in the world. We need to re-establish the certainty of that. Reverting to the tired, old, thoughtless, ill-conceived policies of the Australian Labor Party that have failed time and time again is certainly not the way to go.