We must not take our health care system for granted

1 June, 2021

Before I get fully into this bill, the Private Health Insurance Amendment (Income Thresholds) Bill 2021, I want to make a few comments about Australia's health system. I know that every member of this House will accept that Australia has one of the best health systems in the world bar none. We can go back as far as the pandemic of 1917, and the national response to that grew into other responses for improved health care, especially across the regions.

I've told this story many times, but probably not to this House. In regional areas I represent, as many Liberals and Nationals do, the number of incidences of women dying in childbirth pre-Second World War and just after was in the high double-digit percentages in regional areas. In the cities, it was in single digit numbers, and low single digit numbers. The response from local government councillors and state members at the time—I dare say, inspired by their federal members—was to say, 'We need particular care for the women in our regions,' and they introduced a system of bush nursing hospitals. On the introduction of those bush nursing hospitals, driven by local government and state government and community, who then raised money for their hospitals, those figures came all the way down to the national figure of women who died in childbirth. How did this come to my attention? I was speaking to a farmer in my electorate, one of nature's absolute gentlemen who has now passed away. He was talking about his first mum and second mum and third mum. I was a bit taken aback because of the conservative nature of the area and the family, and divorce certainly wasn't it. He'd lost two of his mums in childbirth—two, in that one family—so it made me go back and inquire as to the nature of this. It's been part of the system where Australians have always responded when their backs were to the wall or they had a need.

I believe in this case with COVID, while there'll be argy-bargy between both sides about who's done what and when they did it and how they did it and who should be blamed and who should not be blamed we are still running one of the best health systems in the world. We're a very wealthy nation per capita, and we're able to respond on behalf of our many, many communities. Australia is a nation of communities. We love to see ourselves as this one broad community, but we're a nation of small communities, and those communities will always band together in times of trouble, in times of fragility, in times when they're faced with a worldwide pandemic like we are today.

This very day in Victoria we are living through it again. There will be encumbrances, disruptions and fatigue for many people across Victoria and for those that have suffered over this last 18 months across the nation. We identify with you. We're not standing in your shoes. We haven't experienced exactly what you have. Our disruption is minimal. As a parliamentarian, my disruption is minimal compared to yours—the restaurants who bought all the food last week and have had to throw it out, all the people that made preparations and plans, and had hopes for the next few weeks, who have had to change their plans completely and all the people running around now, trying to make sure that they've done the right thing by the health system with their vaccinations. To those that are struggling in deciding whether to take the vaccination or not, or which one, I certainly identify with you too.

If I can just stay on the health issue, there will be people today in Victoria who, after a directive that if they are not vaccinated they can't work in certain areas, will be resigning their positions, and I feel for them too. Each one is making personal but sincere decisions about their future and their families' future and how it is to be handled.

When we say we have the best health system in the world it's because of the strategic nature of the changes that I think Stephen Duckett made whereby if you do not have the means to pay for private health insurance you will still be covered in this nation. If you're in trouble, you can ring for help. You can ring triple 0 in Victoria and you will get help. You will be hospitalised and you will be cared for because of the national system that we have. But the wealthier you become in this country, the greater the amount you pay for your health care. That's the Australian way. We have always done it that way. Does having private health care give you priority for elective surgery? Probably. But if you need that care in any emergency situation you will be looked after. You will be catered for. You will be cared for.

In so many countries in the world people cannot afford to get sick. Every parliament that I have been in since the Howard parliament has been the greatest friend of the Australian healthcare system. We as a nation should be thankful every day for this system that looks after our elderly, that looks after our most vulnerable, that looks after those that are in trauma, however that trauma comes, and that swings into action immediately we have any sort of threat to our society, be it bushfire, flood or pandemic, and is able to ramp up its service delivery to a nation in need. So, of course, we pay tribute to all of those who have contributed through the pandemic. We honour them and we thank them for what they've done and what we're calling on them to do again in Victoria.

There have only been three cases of community transmission today, which is a blessing.

Let's hope there are none tomorrow and then none the next day, and state governments around the country will be able to relieve their restrictions on how people can move around the nation, because, until we have that freedom to move and begin to move, we cannot sustain the economic wellbeing of this nation. If some are completely constricted in their ability to move, everybody suffers. We need the opportunity to be able to not just move goods but move people, because people are the greatest wealth that this country has.

The national healthcare system has stood the test of time, from its introduction in 1970 until now, with all the changes that have been made. Is it expensive for government to run? Yes, it is. Is it contributed to by the broader community through private health insurance? Yes, it is. Is it supported by others who, under government direction, have to pay part of their wage in taxation that goes directly towards our healthcare system and, therefore, supports those who cannot support themselves? Yes, it is. I don't quite have the words for how important it is that a family knows that, if their child gets ill, the public health system will run in behind that family and care for that child, and it'll be the best care in the world, from the world's best specialists in every area of our health system. And, Deputy Speaker Mitchell, you know better than I do how important that is on the ground not just for the patient but for the parents, for the grandparents and for the broader family and for communities, who have great expectations.

If you live in a regional area, you're not going to have the broad benefits of living in a city in this nation; we accept that. But we do then overlay that with the Flying Doctor Service, we do then overlay that with very strong and large regional hospitals and then we put extra money into making sure we get the services out to the people.

This legislation makes private health insurance simpler to understand and more affordable for Australians. The government reforms have delivered the lowest average premium changes in 20 years, just 2.74 per cent in 2021. And wouldn't it be great if we could hold that even lower over the next two years so that families that do have private health insurance can have confidence in their own ability to gain access to hospital when needed? It would only be better for this nation if more people who had the funds were able to reduce the pressure on the public healthcare system by taking out private insurance, because that makes such a difference to the pressure on our hospitals. Even if you have private health insurance, you still may be treated in a public hospital because that particular public hospital may be where the best specialists are for the problem that afflicts you or your family.

So we still ask people to make a contribution, and what the Australian government is doing through this legislation is trying to make it easier and more affordable for Australians to have that confidence of being able to buy and support themselves through private health insurance. On the other hand, we're asking the private health insurers to make a contribution to the nation, as well, by streamlining the services they have and finding ways to reduce costs. We're keeping the pressure on the private health insurers to make sure they're delivering the best service that they can, from the premiums that they are given, for real value for the Australian people.

And, whether it be in hip replacements or knee replacements or the equipment needed for that, there has to be genuine oversight and pressure put on so that those particular items do not burst out in costs which then comes back on to health insurers but then comes back onto those people investing in health insurance.

So the best healthcare system in the world, the best public healthcare system in the world, and the most generous governments of the day that support private health care. I remember having this conversation with Prime Minister Howard back before the 1996 election campaign. The changes he brought in then are still resonating with the Australian people today and supporting the Australian people today. This is another very good reason why the best place to be in the world at the moment is this great south land.

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Russell Broadbent MP
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