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Wednesday, 27 June 2001
Page: 28803

Mr ANTHONY (Minister for Community Services) (12:22 PM) —I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

Since its election in 1996, this government has sought to implement its commitment to a simpler and more coherent social security system that more effectively meets its objectives of adequacy, equity, incentives for self-provision, customer service, and administrative and financial sustainability. That commitment can be met in part by seeking to ensure that social security legislation is routinely reviewed both to improve its readability and to ensure that it facilitates the implementation of current and new policies.

Last year this parliament passed the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999, which was a major step forward in achieving these objectives. The act substantially simplified the technical rules and provisions of the social security law. The Social Security Legislation Amendment (Concession Cards) Bill 2001 is a further step towards meeting the government's objectives to achieve a simpler and more coherent social security system because it represents a major simplification of the law relating to concession cards.

As a result of this bill, all law relating to concession cards issued by the family and community services portfolio will be consolidated in the social security law. As part of this process, existing administrative rules and practices will be codified to ensure that those who currently have a concession card continue to qualify for that card on the same basis as they currently qualify. This has been done to avoid having winners or losers from the process of making transparent the law relating to the issue of concession cards.

Access to a concession card is a fundamental component of the government's welfare safety net. Access to a concession card is a significant benefit to those who qualify. At the Commonwealth level, the concession card provides access to concessional pharmaceutical benefits under the National Health Act 1953. It can also be used to access a range of other benefits provided by state, territory, local government and many businesses.

The law currently governing concession cards issued by Centrelink on behalf of the Department of Family and Community Services is highly fragmented.

This causes confusion for social security customers and Centrelink staff who issue the cards.

Some provisions are contained in the Health Insurance Act 1973, others in the National Health Act 1953 and yet others are under the social security law. For example, the Health Insurance Act and the National Health Act contain provisions that specify who is entitled to concessional pharmaceutical benefits. However, appeal rights in relation to concessional pharmaceutical benefits for pensioner concession card and health care card holders are covered by the social security law.

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs recognised the problem in its 1997 report entitled Concessions—who benefits? Report on concession card availability and eligibility for concessions. The committee recommended that the legislative framework be rationalised to include the bulk of concession entitlement provisions in the social security law rather than in legislation administered by the then Health and Family Services portfolio.

The only significant policy change made by the bill relates to foster care children. In future, a child will be entitled to a health care card if the child is in foster care and the child is living in Australia with an Australian resident.

The more significant of the minor policy initiatives implemented by the bill relate to:

· making a person's entitlement to concessional pharmaceutical benefits dependent on the person's status as a holder of a concession card issued under the social security law;

· using the social security and family assistance law definitions of `dependant' and removing the need to rely on definitions of `dependant' in the Health Insurance Act and the National Health Act;

· using the social security law definition of `resident' rather than the National Health Act and Health Insurance Act definition. This makes the question of determining who is qualified for a card much simpler to administer and ensures that there is consistency between qualification for a social security pension or benefit and qualification for a card;

· conferring administrative review rights in relation to decisions on health care cards for persons receiving carer allowance. Such decisions are not reviewable at the moment under section 4CA of the Health Insurance Act;

· providing a power for the minister to declare a person eligible to receive a health care card in limited circumstances; and

· utilising the machinery provisions of the social security law in relation to pensioner concession cards and health care cards in a manner consistent with current administrative practices.

This bill demonstrates the government's commitment to the ongoing review of the legislative basis underlying the social security system so as to achieve a simpler and more coherent system. I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill.