Private Health Insurance Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2014

I rise today to speak on the Private Health Insurance Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2014.

Access to good health and to good health care is a sign of a great community and a great health service. Australia has a proud record of quality health care, with our universal access to primary health and a balance between public and private provision. But from time to time things do go wrong, and having a robust and effective complaints system is an important feature of society. Consumer protections are an important element of any system; this bill transfers the functions of the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman to the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman, and is therefore worth careful consideration.

Labor wants a strong health system, unlike what we see currently from the government. It seems not to have a clear health policy. As this bill makes changes to the existing system without careful considerations of the implications and the practical outcomes, this reflects many of the things that we have seen from this government in 18 months in the health space. Of course, we have had changes to the GP tax—too many to count—and still it seems unresolved. We had a $7 GP tax, a $20 proposal, a $5 proposal and now—it seems by stealth—an $8 increase to patients at the GP. We have had PBS price hikes planned but still not delivered. We have Medicare Locals still unsure of the future arrangements—those things are still unresolved. And we have hundreds of healthcare groups' community health programs not knowing if they will exist after June.

These programs were particularly targeted to areas in our community with high risks of diabetes and heart disease. It was preventative health funding, and part of the budget cuts from this government—which seems to have not as yet come to grips with the notion that prevention is cheaper than cure. In Wyndham, we have the Healthy Together Wyndham program. This program in Wyndham has reached over 54,000 people—that is 28 per cent of our population that has had a positive relationship or interaction with that Healthy Together program. It is still in doubt beyond June this year, having been topped up for the last 12 months by the state government.

It is in that space that we are looking at this further bill today. We have had short-term extensions to things like the specialised training program, a program designed to train more specialists—particularly in rural areas. So, we find ourselves in this health space, with uncertainty in the community about how we are going to go forward. Again, we have a bill in front of us where it appears that the implications of the bill have not been thought through thoroughly.

This government has also approved the two biggest increases to private health insurance premiums in a decade—three times the rate of inflation and bigger than any ever announced by the previous Labor government. A moment's thought would give pause about an unseemly price hike in the current chaos that is being overseen by this government. It leaves us thinking that the Abbott government has no deep commitment to health and no clear direction set in the health space.

The Private Health Insurance Ombudsman exists currently to protect the interests of Australian private health insurance consumers—that is, patients in the context of health. It plays a vital role, it is in demand and it is very effective. It assists in settling disputes, it identifies underlying repeat problems across companies and it has a monitoring role. It provides data for problem-solving. That data should be used to assist in the design of preventative actions. As William Edwards Deming said, 'In God we trust, all others bring data.' But in this instance, this piece of legislation could prove to minimise the government's access to useful data in plans for future health provision.

In a lean operation, the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman provides advice to industry and government about issues, about the sector's performance and about common complaints. It is delivering in a growing complaints regime. It produces the annual State of the health funds report, and has done so for more than 10 years, comparing the performance of health funds. It has overseen an increase in complaints but also an increase in traffic to the website, where patients—customers and consumers—can look at the comparative performance of those health funds. And it has seen increased customer satisfaction. It is, therefore a good-quality service. One wonders why this government would see fit to move the provision from the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman to the Commonwealth Ombudsman at this time.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman also oversees an effective operation, but will it be well supported to take on this extra task? None of this is clear in this piece of legislation. Will the specialised staff be lost? Will the corporate knowledge be lost? Will the parameters of the work be maintained? Will the service levels go down?

Specialised staff and corporate knowledge are vital in ongoing decision making in the health sector.

This is in contrast to Labor's attitude towards health care. We are on the record as supporting private health insurance in this country. Despite the scare campaign by the current government whilst in opposition, the membership of private health insurance continues to grow, which means for the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman the workload continues to grow. This bill would see that workload shifted across to the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

We all know that the Commonwealth Ombudsman already has a huge workload in defence, immigration, law enforcement, the postal industry, overseas students and potentially other areas. It begs the question: what is the government's motivation for this change? Is it cost cutting? Yet the legislation indicates it is cost neutral.

On this side of the House, we demonstrated in government how to balance business imperatives with consumer protection. We protected consumers from rising costs, and the private health industry provision grew. We are left to wonder: is it to avoid scrutiny? Is this government avoiding the data that would assist in making decisions regarding provision into the future?

This bill demonstrates clearly that this government and this health minister have very different priorities to the previous government. They are not, it seems, interested in an effective, efficient and informed health sector. This is clearly evident from the Medicare Local shambles where there is still no certainty and could be seen through the lens of another attack on collecting data to make informed, strategic decisions about the health sector.

Labor has a proud record on health. We want private health insurance members to have access to quality information and the best resources so they can find the best provider at the best price. We want access to the best health system in the world. We want a healthy, productive community: investment in preventative health and keeping people out of expensive hospital beds. This piece of legislation appears to put at risk some of the data, information, monitoring and intervention that makes all that possible.

This government, it appears, does not value health provision. It talks about competition but fails to back this up with actions. It has a scattergun approach to health policy. There is a lack of consultation with the sector and consumers. There is a lack of clear vision. Minister Ley has been sent in to clean up the mess that she inherited from Minister Dutton when he was in the role. My fear is that this is just another example of poorly-thought-out policy.

For the people in my electorate, where 62 per cent have private health insurance, this is a critical piece of legislation. It may in fact change the provision currently where consumers can be quite confident in that they can make a complaint to the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman and have it seen to seriously. They can currently go to the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman with confidence that they are dealing with a system that knows the sector well and has expertise in the sector, and they can talk to specialist staff who understand their concerns and the way the system works. I am reluctant to say that I can support this piece of legislation, given that it changes the shape of the current system.

The substantive elements of this bill merge the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman and the Commonwealth Ombudsman, but we are left wondering if there will be the capacity for the Ombudsman to fulfil this important role. We are concerned that the current provision of allowing someone with a complaint to request additional time to report to the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman is not part of the changes proposed by the government.

There is also currently provision for the minister to intervene where the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman decides not to investigate a complaint, and this is omitted in the current bill. The provision for the minister to request the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman to undertake investigations is also omitted in this bill. Like my colleagues, while not opposing the bill outright, I want to flag the opposition's concerns about these omissions—and I do that on behalf of the 62 per cent of the people in Lalor who have private health insurance and need assurance that their complaints and consumer rights will be protected in this system.

I find myself once again speaking in this chamber on health, because I am concerned about this government's lack of direction in the health portfolio. We are still in a space where we are unsure about the provision of bulk-billing into the future. For the people of my electorate of Lalor, where 92 per cent have access to bulk-billing GP services, this is a concern. In my electorate, health funding for hospitals was cut in last year's budget. In another example, the McAuley centre has 12 months continual funding that will finish in June, and Medicare Locals are still unsure about the future. We have general practitioners in the electorate who tell me that they found the Medicare Local absolutely essential and absolutely informative around the data and the needs of the community they serve, and that they had been working collaboratively across the electorate on preventative health measures and being innovative about how health provision would be conducted across the electorate.

I call on this government to start thinking clearly about healthcare provision and to put preventative health measures at the front of their thinking in this area. I ask them to honour bulk-billing into the future and to desist from trying to dismantle our universality of health care. I ask them to fund the hospitals and to commit to ensuring that our public hospitals have the funds that they need. I ask them to fund preventative health measures. I ask them to give consideration to all of these things so that we can work in the health sector with the data that we need to ensure that we get provision right into the future; so that we can keep people out of expensive hospital beds; and so that we can work with our general practitioners and with the experts in the health sector to ensure that health provision in my electorate and across the country is the best it can be, as it has been in the past.

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