(Parkes-The Nationals Chief Whip) (19:27): I rise to speak on the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill 2011. I am strongly opposed to this bill. Not only will this bill be detrimental to the people that I represent in the seat of Parkes; it will be detrimental to the country as a whole and will put tremendous stress on the health industry. In my electorate of Parkes, which I believe is in the bottom five electorates in Australia for per capita income, just on 44,000 people have private health insurance. So the myth that private health insurance is the domain of the rich is a falsehood.
People in my electorate struggle to pay their private health insurance premiums. They sacrifice other things to have the comfort of knowing that when they do need critical health care they can get the treatment that they want. In my electorate we are very well serviced by the public system. We have multipurpose services in the small towns; we have some great hospitals-from the Dubbo Base Hospital to the smallest MPS. There is a synergy between the public health system and the private system. In Dubbo we have the Lourdes private hospital, run by Catholic Healthcare, and the Dubbo Private Hospital that run in cooperation with the base hospital. Those hospitals allow the visiting surgeons and specialists to operate in a regional area. So they not only service the people who live in those towns but they service people from a long way away. It is my concern that, with the shrinking of the private health system that this bill will bring about, we will start to see those doctors ceasing to service the regional areas.
Many of these hospitals are running on a fine margin. We have heard other speakers say that the number of operations that are done by private hospitals per government dollar spent on them compared to the public system shows that they are punching well above their weight. The private hospital in Tamworth in the seat of New England services a lot of my constituents. It is a regional centre and I have been a patient in that hospital myself. It is my understanding that the Tamara Private Hospital will really struggle to keep its doors open if this legislation comes through.
This bill is ill considered for quite a few reasons. If it is designed to improve the government’s bottom line, it is incredibly short sighted because this has the potential to really balloon the expenses in health care. The public system is going to have a huge influx of people leaving the private system because they can simply no longer afford it. While people realise that private health insurance is important and they sacrifice to keep it, when they get into a financial bind it is one thing they will drop. It is a bit like house insurance. When people get into a financial bind they will not insure their house and, sure as eggs, they are the people who are going to get a fire or a flood. This is exactly the same. These people will reluctantly leave private health insurance and be reliant on the public system and we are going to see that balloon out.
I have some experience in this. One of my daughters is a doctor who has spent quite a bit of time working in a regional base hospital. The emergency and outpatient jobs that those hospitals do that should already be taken up by other providers is enormous. If this influx of people from the private system hits them, they are just not going to cope. The waiting list now for surgery in many of these regional base hospitals is quite long, so much of the elective surgery is done through the private system. If that ceases to be an option, the health care for the people that I represent will really suffer.
Underpinning all of this is a breach of faith. The former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the former health minister, Nicola Roxon, had said on numerous occasions that this rebate was not to be touched. Apart from the practical reasons why this is a dumb idea, this is a dishonest move by this government. They assured the Australian people that they were not going to interfere with the health rebate and now they are doing it. If they are doing it to improve their bottom line-it is my understanding that the money that is saved from these rebates is not guaranteed to go into health care; it can go into consolidated revenue-then it is an even dumber idea because it will be robbing Peter to pay Paul and the Australian people are going to end up with a second rate health system.
Up until now our public-private system, which works so well in the cases that I am aware of, has been the envy of other countries. One of the things this country does well is provide a service for the poorest of people and the wealthiest of people. Australian people get a wonderful opportunity to receive health care. This is going to be put into jeopardy. If this government think pushing everyone to the lowest common denominator, pushing everyone onto a public system that is already bursting at the seams, is good health policy or good fiscal policy, they are delusional.
Since 2007 this government has been talking about reform of health, but what we have seen is window dressing and tinkering around the edges. One of the great frustrations with health I have been dealing with as an MP has been the merging of divisions of general practice to form Medicare Locals. I have been dealing with health professionals who are struggling to understand where they fit into this grand plan. It was a plan that was announced without any great detail and the health professionals in my electorate have been bending over backwards to do what they think the government wants them to do without any clear guidelines on whether that is the right thing to do. I believe that this change, on top of the unsettled conditions that have already been created by this government, will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. There is a list of statistics here that I could mention to back up the case as to why this is a very dumb idea, but we have heard those before in the eloquent speeches in this place. So I will conclude by saying I hope that, when this goes to a vote, the members of this House who represent average Australians who rely on being able to access health care in a timely and cost-effective manner consider their constituents and give this bill the scorn that it deserves.