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Thursday, 24 May 2001
Page: 27013

Mr GRIFFIN (1:07 PM) —The Health Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2001 contains six mostly unrelated minor sets of amendments. The first amendment involves a change to the method of appointment of the members of the Board of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare to set by regulation the groups who can make nominations. The second relates to authorisation for the institute to release welfare information and to apply the same restrictions that apply to its release of health information. This is described as a technical amendment arising from an oversight at the time that the AIHW's responsibilities were broadened to welfare in 1992. The third amendment seeks to simplify the administrative procedures for the recognition of specialist medical practitioners. The requirements for either a ministerial determination or consideration by a specialist recognition advisory committee will be removed. The existing provisions regarding registration by the states are continued.

The fourth amendment deals with approval for unpresented Medicare cheques to be paid to a doctor after 90 days. Currently, patients can choose the option of sending an unpaid bill to Medicare and receive a cheque made out in the name of the doctor. In a small percentage of cases, these cheques are not sent on to the doctor. This results in a windfall gain for Medicare. This amendment will enable the Health Insurance Commission to pay the doctor directly if a `pay doctor' cheque is not cashed within 60 days. The fifth amendment deals with authorisation for the Health Insurance Commission to pay health funds for late claims rather than such claims having to be dealt with as an act of grace payment under the defective administration arrangements of the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997. Finally, there is a further group of amendments to the legislation for the 30 per cent rebate rectifying errors in the previous set of amendments. The government's continuing inability to resolve the implementation of the rebate is of concern.

These amendments are mostly uncontroversial. I will today simply make two points which have been raised with the minister to seek a satisfactory explanation. Firstly, the government has an appalling record of bias in its appointment processes, and the minister has made a series of inappropriate appointments. The opposition remains very concerned about the effective sacking of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee and the appointment of a new panel, including an industry representative.

That change was made in the wake of legislation that was presented in a similar way to this bill—as a tidying up of who could make nominations. After the bill was passed the existing members were sacked or put in a position whereby they felt obliged to resign on principle. A proposal to act similarly on the board of ANZFA was referred to a Senate committee, which recommended against the scheme proposed by the government, again because of concern that there would be dominance by industry and that the regulator would lose its credibility. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare depends on its reputation of independence and rigour for its authority. It should not be seen as a body doing the bidding of the government. Hence there are grounds for concern, and written assurances have been sought from the minister that the government will not dismiss the existing board or introduce regulations that would introduce organisations or procedures that would damage the independence of the AIHW.

Secondly, in relation to the proposals for `pay doctor' cheques, there is a potential problem that a doctor could double-dip if they successfully pursue a debt from the patient and then are also paid by Medicare. To avoid this, it will be proposed that a doctor claiming for outstanding `pay doctor' cheques should be required to certify that they have not received payment by other means for the same service.

The opposition will be supporting this bill because the measures it contains are fairly non-controversial. It is perhaps indicative of a government coming to the end of its term that it has run out of ideas and is presenting such mundane matters to the parliament.