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Thursday, 2 December 2004
Page: 109

Senator BARNETT (4:15 PM) —I note that the last speaker, Senator McLucas, indicated that it is a government mandate that is being implemented through the Health Insurance Amendment (100% Medicare Rebate and Other Measures) Bill 2004. I thank her for acknowledging that we have a mandate, and we will implement it. I congratulate Tony Abbott, the relevant minister, and the government on acting quickly to implement the mandate. From 1 January 2005 the rebate for GP services will be increased from 85 to 100 per cent of the Medicare schedule fee. That builds on the government's Strengthening Medicare strategy, and it commits $1.8 billion over four years to the measure. What Senator McLucas did not put on the public record was an apology to the Australian people with regard to Labor's Medicare Gold policy, which was a complete failure. She did not apologise for their vehement opposition to the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate and the increase that the government has proposed for Australians aged 65 and over. I think the Labor Party should apologise, and it should now come on board and support those initiatives.

As a member of the Senate Select Committee on Medicare, it was quite clear to me and to others that were watching and listening that the Labor members were seeking for the Australian health system to be nationalised. They want a nationalised health system, whereas, at the moment, we have a good balance between public and private. You see, the measure that we have in terms of Medicare will not affect GPs' eligibility for bulk-billing incentives and for other payments from the Australian government through other programs. In my own state of Tasmania, GPs can still claim an extra $7.50 each time they bulk-bill Commonwealth concession card holders or children under the age of 16. In fact, we are the only state that has blanket coverage. I acknowledge that and thank the Howard government for that. Certainly Tasmanians do the same, and they did that at the election on 9 October.

I want to make a couple of comments with regard to the AMA. I was guest speaker at their Christmas meeting just last week in Hobart. It was ably led by Dr Michael Aizen, who is the president of the AMA in Tasmania, and Rodney Cameron-Tucker, who is the executive director. It was a good function. We had discussions and meetings with regard to a whole range of health policies. I can assure you that they are very supportive of this particular initiative. In terms of the health policies that are benefiting the state of Tasmania, we are investing $12 million into a new medical school. We announced last year that we are adding 21 new medical places for that medical school. It is going from 61 medical places to 82 medical places, which is tremendous. The Australian government will be injecting an extra $220 million over the next five years into Tasmania's public hospital system. All those things are happening, and I will comment further on them.

Access to GPs is improving. It has been difficult in Tasmania because there are many rural and regional areas. In terms of our Strengthening Medicare initiative, we now have an extra doctor at Exeter on the West Tamar. It has taken quite a bit of work to make that happen. Dr Andrew Clarke is quite relieved. We have more doctors for the north-east, based at Scottsdale. Together with the Liberal Senate team, we have worked very hard to ensure that under our Strengthening Medicare package we have more doctors and nurses in those rural and regional parts of Tasmania and indeed across the country.

What Labor fails to acknowledge and does not want to accept is that Strengthening Medicare is already working. A few weeks ago Labor saw the results in the increase in the bulk-billing rates and could not believe them. Those bulk-billing incentives have paid a dividend. In Tasmania we received the largest increase of 14.8 percentage points, up to 63.2 per cent. That does not make it rosy, but it is still a huge improvement. It is easy to see that Labor has been embarrassed by that fact.

In conclusion, I want to thank Tony Abbott for his leadership. I want to thank the government and acknowledge the work of Christopher Pyne. He is demonstrating excellent understanding and leadership as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Ageing. Finally, I support the recent announcement by the Prime Minister to have a review of our health system—the Andrew Podger AO review. In terms of the improvement to the delivery of our health services, I think that will be good. The Health Insurance Amendment (100% Medicare Rebate and Other Measures) Bill 2004 should be supported without amendment. It will deliver many benefits for the people of Australia in the delivery of efficient and effective health services.