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Thursday, 17 December 1992
Page: 5403

Senator PATTERSON (8.15 p.m.) —I will not reiterate the points that Senator Knowles made in speaking to this report of the Auditor-General. I have seen today one of the most farcical press releases I have ever read since I have been in this place—a press release put out by Mr Howe who somehow has had some flash of light on the road to Damascus that something is not well with Medicare. Somehow light has dawned on him.

  In the mid-1980s a report highlighted the problems that surrounded the Medicare system. Included in that report was concern about fraud. Also included was concern about lack of legislative powers under the Health Insurance Act to apprehend and deal with people for engaging in fraud and/or overservicing. Nothing was done about this until a year ago. We then began to see something being done. Why? Because the Auditor-General decided that he would do an audit. Suddenly the Health Insurance Commission decided that it would appoint a consultant. Things started to happen.

  What does Mr Howe say in his press release? The press release states:

The Minister for Health, Housing and Community Services, Brian Howe, today signalled the Government would move quickly to draw up legislative proposals designed to enable the Health Insurance Commission to deal more effectively with fraud and overservicing of Medicare and Pharmaceutical Benefits.

He should have done that seven years ago when he was told that there were problems. But somehow it has taken the Auditor-General to go in there, and then Harvey Bates to be appointed as a consultant, for the Minister to do anything about it.

  How much of the Australian taxpayers' money has been lost? How much money that has been lost because of fraud could have been used to reduce those dreadful hospital waiting lists? Millions and millions of dollars have been wasted in fraud. Hip operations have not been done; cataract operations have not been done; people are living in pain and anguish because this Minister and obviously previous health Ministers have sat on their hands and done nothing about what they knew existed. They had been told.

  Mr Howe said—and this will make Senator Knowles laugh if she has not read it—that he was going to have wide and open consultations with the medical and pharmacy professions. I am sure that they will find that most entertaining. What are we told over and over again by the health professions? Every time we have the optometrists in, we are told, `We were never consulted. We do not get consulted'. The pathologists come in and say, `We were not consulted'; the pharmacists say, `We were not consulted'; the medicos say, `We were not consulted'; people in disability fields say, `We were not consulted'. Every time under this Minister we hear the words, `We have not been consulted'.

  I do not think I get the same complaints from peak bodies of constituents in respect of any other Minister that they were never consulted. Mr Howe, on the road to Damascus, has suddenly discovered that the way forward is through open and wide consultations. I could have told Mr Howe before I even came into this place that the way to move forward is to consult, to find out, and to say to people, `We have got a limited amount of money. How are we going to achieve this together?'.

   That is not what is done. The message comes from on high. We get some bureaucratic idea which is totally incomprehensible, such the idiotic suggestion that was made some years ago of merging all small rural nursing homes that were less than 250 kilometres apart. There is no concern for the humans at the end of the line—the real people. Notwithstanding that, we are told that there will be open and wide consultations.

  Mr Howe says that he will get an adviser. He is going to appoint an adviser who will play a key role in consultations and in making sure we get it right. He said that he will be appointing an eminent medical practitioner. I can tell Mr Howe that it is too late. He should have got it right when he first got in and when other Ministers held the health portfolio. He has got it so wrong that he will not have the chance to get it right. It will be the coalition that gets it right, not Mr Howe with his fancy consultant. He should have had someone in there years ago.

  The fraud has been extensive. We do not know how much it is and Senator Herron will deal with that in more detail. The Government has no idea. Seven per cent? Ten per cent? It is anybody's guess. Mr Howe also says that the Government is going to review diagnostic imaging services. Good for him, but when one sees the figures one will see that they have been going out for a long time too. Something should have been done about that before this. It took the Auditor-General going in for Mr Howe to be shaken and jolted into doing something about our Medicare system which is in disarray and which is not delivering services to people who genuinely need them.

  I have said this before and I will say it again: I had a local newsagent ring me up in desperation. He told me that he cannot bear to see an old lady who comes into his newsagency week in and week out, deteriorating because she has waited two years or 14 months—I cannot remember what it is; it most probably seems like 10 years to her—to get a hip replacement. He has nothing to do with this lady; she is a customer of his. There are women and men like that throughout Australia. They have been waiting while the Minister sat on his hands while the fraud has gone on. He knew in the early 1980s that we needed legislative changes, that there were difficulties in having prosecutions, that there were problems with the medical benefits schedule, that there were technological advances in medicine that needed to be addressed and that there was fraud. All of those things he knew.

  The Auditor-General has not told us anything much new. There are a few extra things about the oversupply of doctors, because that has changed maybe in the last six or seven years, but everything else was in that earlier report in some form or other. Nothing has been done by this Government. The Government will stand condemned because, for the public, health is one of the major issues, next to unemployment, which are so drastic in this country.

  This is the worst recession in 60 years and now we have a health system in total disarray. We have the Minister distributing in the press gallery an absolutely farcical story about how he has now seen the light and he is going to do something about it. Let me tell Mr Howe that it is too late. He will not have the chance because it will be Bob Woods the Minister for health who will address the problems and make sure that the health dollar is delivered in the right place to those people in need. We will reduce those hospital waiting lists, we will get a proper balance between private and public health and we will restore the best health system in the world. We had that and we will restore that. Mr Howe is so late that it does not matter.