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Tuesday, 7 March 2023
Page: 3

Senator STEELE-JOHN (Western Australia) (12:17): I want to start by indicating that the Australian Greens will be supporting the Private Health Insurance Legislation Amendment (Medical Device and Human Tissue Product List and Cost Recovery) Bill 2022, the Private Health Insurance (Prostheses Application and Listing Fees) Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2022 and the Private Health Insurance (National Joint Replacement Register Levy) Amendment (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2022. We do so while recognising that private health insurance is out of reach for too many people in Australia, and we acknowledge that the subsidy that this government provides to private health insurance corporations would be better spent and would better achieve health outcomes if we invested that money into the public healthcare system.

As stated in the second reading amendment that I will be moving on behalf of the Australian Greens, those in our Australian community who can afford private health insurance, which is increasing in cost again this year, are experiencing a system which is expensive but which ultimately delivers them faster access to health care. The inherent and growing inequality at the centre of this equation is astounding. We are creeping ever closer to an American style healthcare system, and the Australian value of getting health care for free when you need it is getting further and further out of reach for so many. We've got to ask ourselves a fundamental question in this debate: why?

I have learnt, in this space, that, when something seems out of place or out of step in this political building, in the decision-making processes of this place—when the government, whether it's the Liberal government or the Labor government, is making a decision that is fundamentally out of step with the needs of the community or what is in the community's best interests—there is often corporate money involved. And, lo and behold, the decision to not adequately resource our public hospitals, the decision to support an increase in private health insurance fees and the decision not to take immediate action to expand mental healthcare services to bring them under Medicare could, I believe, be firmly put down to the over $2 million of income the major parties received from private health insurers and pharmaceutical companies in the 2021-22 financial year.

In this current cost-of-living crisis, we need to see more from this government—more in relation to the expansion of public healthcare systems. We need to see changes to the way that our public health system works to meet the community expectation and the community need. What I hear from people across WA is that, instead of their private health insurance fees increasing, they want to see mental and dental health under Medicare.

Let's take a deep dive for a moment into the reality of the current dental health crisis. Only 42 per cent of people between the ages of 25 and 34 have been able to go to the dentist in the last year. We know that people are delaying addressing ongoing dental issues because, instead, they need to do things like pay their rents as they increase, and they simply cannot afford to go to the dentist to get that urgent dental work done. Of those who can afford to make it to the dentist, nearly a quarter are not able to afford to fully treat the problem.

In 2019, there were 70,000 hospitalisations from dental conditions that could have been avoided. They could have been avoided. These are people that ended up in hospital when there would have been no reason for them to be there if they had simply been able to receive dental treatment earlier. Nearly 9,000 of those cases were in my state of Western Australia. On average, an Australian will spend $326 in out-of-pocket dental costs per year, nearly seven times what the government pays on average, per capita, in subsidies to dental health care. These stats are a snapshot of why I dearly wish that the parliament were working on a bill to pass dental care into Medicare today.

As for mental health care, we have, again, a familiar story. People are unable to get the mental health supports that they need right now. Services are not available locally. There are very long waiting lists, or there are simply closed books. And, if you can get onto somebody's books and get in to see someone, cost is then an additional barrier. What does Labor do in response to this reality, the crisis of mental health care in this country, particularly in the aftermath of one of the worst periods of crisis in this country that we have seen in many years in relation to the healthcare system? It has pushed incredible weight upon people's mental health. The reality is that, for young people in Australia, there is an absolute and total mental health care crisis in this country. It is unparalleled in its history.

So what does Labor do in response to this absolute reality? They have stopped the 20 subsidies in the Better Access healthcare scheme, and they have wound them back to 10. Let me say that again. In the face of a mental health care crisis overwhelmingly falling on the shoulders of young people, this Labor government has decided to wind back the 20-session subsidy under the Better Access scheme to 10 sessions. It is absolutely unbelievable. The reason they've given for this disgraceful decision is some mumblings about capacity in the system. They've referenced reports and reviews, even though those reports and reviews do not, in fact, recommend rolling back the 20 sessions; they recommended the augmentation of the system. So, in the face of these reports and realities and endless submissions from mental-healthcare peak groups, this government rolled back those subsidies and blamed it on capacity. And, when anyone calls them out on the absolute nonsense of that—the disconnected, illogical nature of looking at massive unmet need in the system and responding by constraining access—this government looks you in the face and says, 'Well, we've got to balance the budget; we've got to make sure the books add up,' while, at the same time, it gives a quarter of a trillion dollars to some of the richest people in this country, in the form of the stage 3 tax cuts. It's absolutely disgusting. In no other area of Australian public policy would it be acceptable to respond to an increase in need by constraining access and then claiming that you're doing the right thing by the community that is demonstrating that increased need.

Addressing the cost-of-living barriers is exactly what this government should be doing, by expanding the system so that people can get what they need, when they need it, where they are, without that being determined by them having to choose—having the luxury of choosing!—between health care or mental health care and paying their rent. These are basic expectations of the Australian community. Australians should not have to rely on private health insurance to get timely access to health care. It is time to prioritise public health care and to get dental and mental health into Medicare, where they have always belonged. And it is time to get this done now. This is what Australia needs. This is what the Greens will continue to work on, until people are able to access this relief and until these goals are achieved.

In closing, I move the second reading amendment standing on the Notice Paper in my name:

At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:

(a) notes that:

(i) the Australian Government has announced that, on average, private health insurance premiums will increase in April 2023 by 2.9%,

(ii) the Australian community is relying on private health insurance policies to avoid delays in the public system, which is underfunded and in crisis,

(iii) the major parties received nearly $2 million from private health insurers and pharmaceutical companies in their party annual returns for the 2021-22 financial year,

(iv) the community perceives a link between donations to political parties and their policy priorities; and

(b) is of the opinion that the Australian community should not have to rely on private health insurance to access health care in a timely manner".