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Thursday, 27 May 1993
Page: 1490


Senator NEWMAN (3.18 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

   That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Health (Senator Richardson), in response to a question without notice asked by Senator Newman this day, relating to Medicare.

My question related to whether the Minister for Health could rule out any further rises to the Medicare levy following the one due on 1 July this year when it will go from 1.25 per cent to 1.4 per cent. Anyone watching Senator Richardson would have thought that he was a bit like a cat dancing on a hot tin roof. I said a cat, but I do not know whether a cat has fingers to cross behind its back while it dances. He was really in a bit of a quandary as to how to avoid the question and not give a pledge to not increase the Medicare levy during the life of this Parliament. The situation is that, unless something `turns up', the Minister really is on a hot tin roof. He will not give that pledge on the Medicare levy because he knows that, inevitably, the levy will have to rise again. One presumes that it cannot wait until the next election; it will have to be done before then.

  The Minister knows that he cannot implement the co-payments which were outlawed a year or so ago because there is no Caucus support for them. That is why they were wiped out when Mr Keating became the Prime Minister. Similarly, the Minister knows that he will not get sufficient support in the party room for the introduction of tax incentives for private health insurance for individuals. But he desperately needs some more money; the health system is going broke.

  He says that he will do better at catching instances of fraud and overservicing. But the Government has been pretty ineffectual in this area already. So far in 1991-92 it has recovered $1 million from Medicare fraud and $55,000 from chasing overservicing. So the Government does not have a crash-hot record when it needs hundreds of millions of dollars.

  Mr Deputy President, you will recall that the former Minister for Health, Brian Howe, said on the 29 August 1991 that if the co-payments were overruled, a Medicare levy of 1.53 per cent would be needed with further increases in the future. He said:

We would require a lift in the Medicare levy from 1.25% of income to 1.53% and because this would not stem the growth in service use, further increases in the levy would be required in later years.

So we can see why Senator Richardson was not prepared to give a pledge today. He has his fingers crossed hoping that something will turn up, but goodness knows what it will be.

  He also tells us that he will keep all the election promises in relation to health. I ask again: where will the money come from? He has already put the emergency dental health scheme on hold. That is down the track now. He has acknowledged today that his Government's promise to buy back beds in private hospitals for public patients will not work. I told him that during the estimates committee hearings. He claimed that he would get private hospitals to agree to the scheme, but now he acknowledges that that will be very hard.

  He has been on the public record saying that 100,000 people on waiting lists for elective surgery is not a crisis. Today he claims that he will spend every cent he can to reduce waiting times and lists in public hospitals. Apparently, he is now prepared to acknowledge the seriousness of those awful statistics. Those statistics are not just numbers; they are people in pain, suffering in queues.

  He claims that he will increase health research. How will he do it all? The fact is: there is not enough money in the health system in this country to meet the existing commitments let alone fulfil those hollow election promises. More money has to be injected into the system, and the only options are to introduce co-payments, increase the Medicare levy, introduce tax incentives for private health insurance, claw back any fraud, cut services and ration health care. That is why Senator Richardson is dancing on a hot tin roof. He does not have many options and he has to come clean in the end. He cannot prevaricate much longer. Where will the money come from?

  Question resolved in the affirmative.