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Wednesday, 2 March 2011
Page: 1004

Senator XENOPHON (5:30 PM) —I will not be supporting the motion by Senator Abetz to disallow the Health Insurance (Eligible Collection Centres) Approval Principles 2010. However, I have had discussions with a number of stakeholders about this and I had what I thought was a productive meeting with the shadow minister for health about it. So I know and understand the concerns about overservicing and I will address those shortly.

It would be remiss of me, however, not to mention another matter. The Leader of the Government in the Senate referred to the issue of competition. I think it is a good thing to have competition in the marketplace, to open up the market. If only the government had a similar approach to Coles and Woolworths!

Senator Chris Evans interjecting—

Senator XENOPHON —I do not know whether that is a promise from the Leader of the Government in the Senate—whether opening up pathology services is a harbinger of things to come for the grocery market, over which Coles and Woolworths have a stranglehold.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells —You can only keep trying.

Senator XENOPHON —I will keep trying, Senator Fierravanti-Wells. My office has been contacted in the lead-up to this motion by many stakeholders on this issue—large-scale pathology providers, small providers who have set up centres since the deregulation last year and industry representatives. Since the deregulation last July, the number of collection centres has increased by over 1,000 throughout the country. I note the comments by the government and by Senator Siewert that there has been an increase in access to pathology services in regional communities and country towns which did not previously have such centres. That is unambiguously a good thing.

I believe that this move has improved competition in the pathology sector, which I believe is a good thing. I am also aware that legislation was recently passed giving patients greater choice about which pathology provider they wished to visit—you are not restricted to the pathology provider on the form. That introduction of greater choice is also a good thing. However, I am concerned that overservicing may occur and that issue has troubled me most in considering this matter.

Before I refer to that, however, I also have a concern about the consequences of these regulations being disallowed. Those who have entered into commercial arrangements with longer term leases of, say, two, three or five years, would, I believe, suffer significant detriment. There ought to be mechanisms in place to deal with those people who have acted in good faith in setting up businesses. However, I have had discussions with Mr Dutton, the shadow minister for health, at which he raised his concerns and I do think overservicing is an issue on which we always need to be vigilant.

I am advised by the Minister for Health and Ageing and by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, who set out a number of compliance mechanisms that already exist, that where the government discovers evidence of overservicing strong action can be taken. The 2009-10 annual report of the Professional Services Review contains full details of cases referred to the PSR by Medicare Australia, including some in the pathology sector. I have been assured by the government that there is strong, ongoing monitoring of service usage across the MBS, that Medicare Australia aims to audit approximately four per cent of providers each year and that the preparation of compliance reports identifying trends in the use of Medicare services and the continuous monitoring of data enable compliance teams to act quickly when problems emerge.

Having said that, the Senate has an opportunity, when the Health Insurance Amendment (Compliance) Bill 2010 is brought before this chamber, to have a serious look at strengthening the overservicing provisions, particularly in relation to the pathology sector. I think that it is important that we do so to ensure that there are sufficient mechanisms in place to prevent overservicing, to look at trends in overservicing, to ensure that consumers have a choice of pathology providers and to ensure that communities, particularly regional communities, have fair access to pathology providers. We need to ensure that there is no rorting of the system occurring, that there is no overservicing and that the system is equitable in its operation. I think there is an opportunity, when the Health Insurance Amendment (Compliance) Bill is brought before this place in the not too distant future, to strengthen the legislation and allay some of the concerns of those who have proposed this disallowance motion. I think that will deal with the concerns about the potential for overservicing.

For those reasons, I cannot support this disallowance motion. But I look forward to working constructively with the opposition, my colleagues in the Greens and Senator Fielding from Family First to ensure that the overservicing provisions of the Health Insurance Amendment (Compliance) Bill 2010 are strengthened significantly and that there is a monitoring regime in place to prevent the system from being rorted.