John Menadue. Taxes – public or private

May 2, 2014

The Commission of Audit has recommended that a Medicare levy surcharge be applied to individuals earning more than $88,000 a year and $176,000 for families. This is designed to force high income earners to take out private health insurance. This is one of the most economically stupid and dangerous proposals that I have seen for a long time. The Commission of Audit foolishly thinks that this would reduce public taxes, but it would result in increased private taxes (premiums). Higher premiums are the inevitable result of increased reliance on private health insurance. This is what has brought disaster for healthcare in the US. Private healthcare premiums have gone through the roof and the US now has one of the worst and most expensive healthcare services in the world. 

Furthermore, the Commission of Audit’s proposal would move us a long way towards a two-tier health system, with a high quality and very expensive healthcare service for the rich and a welfare type health service for the poor. It strikes at the heart of social solidarity and social cohesion which is essential in a good society. It would end Medicare as we know it, a high quality service available to all regardless of income.

Below I have reposted an article of 1 February about the fallacy of assuming that public taxes are bad but private taxes (premiums) are good.


It has become commonplace for opponents of government and the public sector to suggest that functions like health care and broadcasting should be moved from the public sector to the private sector in order to reduce taxes. They usually add in that the private sector is also much more efficient in performing such functions.

There are good social and economic reasons why certain functions should remain in the public sector – defence, education and health. But there is also a great fallacy that somehow public taxes are bad and private taxes/premiums are fine.

Let me give you two examples.

The private health insurance industry claims that Medicare is unsustainable and that more people should take up private health insurance to reduce the demands on the public health system. The suggestion is that by doing so, governments will not have to keep increasing taxes to fund public health. But there is a fundamental error in this argument. Private health insurance (PHI) has been raising its premiums at an alarming rate and much faster than Medicare through taxation. The PHI premiums are really the same as taxes that finance Medicare, except that one is public and the other is private.

Since 1999, when rebates for PHI were introduced, the average PHI premium (private tax) has increased 130% whilst overall prices have increased by less than 50%. These private taxes or premiums are rising dramatically for a whole range of reasons that I set out in my blog of December 26 – ‘Health insurance – here we go again’.

The other important reason for these high private taxes/premiums by PHI is that their administrative costs, including profits, run at about 15% to 16% of total costs. For Medicare, including the cost of tax collection, administrative costs are about 6% of total costs. So with the administrative costs of PHI about three times those of Medicare it is not unreasonable to conclude that the public gets far better value for money in its taxes paid to finance Medicare than paying premiums/private taxes to PHI. Expanding the role of PHI would greatly increase the level of these private taxes. The fact that they are private taxes misses the point. They are taxes on the consumer just the same as public taxes.

The experience of the US should also warn us about private health insurance premiums/taxes. In the US, healthcare expenditure is over 18% of GDP. It is the highest in the world. In Australia it is about 9% to 10% of GDP, as is the case for most comparable countries that have a single public insurer like Medicare. Of the 18% costs in the US( as a proportion of GDP), about 9% is due to private insurance. Private health insurance in the US has been unable to control price demands by private doctors and private hospitals. If in theory the US had a single public insurer and followed the example of other single public insurer countries like Australia, the US could reduce its health expenditure by 9% of GDP. In such a situation the 9% of GDP paid to private health insurance funds would be unnecessary. If those premiums to private insurance were then redirected into public revenue, the US budget deficit of 7% of GDP would be eliminated. I said this was theoretical and there are clearly enormous political difficulties for President Obama to wind back the mess that private health insurance has wrought. But the figures do illustrate that the US would be better off with a robust public insurer funded by taxes rather than by the grossly unfair and inefficient privatised taxes that private health insurance imposes on the community. The US experience shows quite conclusively that shifting insurance out of the government and into private health insurance would be a disaster for everyone. To finance health care through the private taxes or premiums of PHI would result in much higher imposts on the public, than paying for health care through public taxes.

The other example of privatised taxes is illustrated in the case that is often made against the ABC and other public broadcasters that are funded by taxes or special licence fees. Yet the critics of public broadcasting like Murdoch impose their own taxes – what is in effect a sales tax on products that are advertised in the commercial media. In my blog of December 19 ‘Murdoch and Abbott and the ABC’, I drew attention to the argument by Ian McAuley about the high cost of these privatised taxes. He said ‘We are paying about $1,500 per year per household for advertising, of which $500 is for commercial TV and radio… By contrast we are paying about $120 per year for the ABC’. Commercial media collects “taxes”, but it is called ‘advertising revenue’. This revenue is a cost to the advertiser and is loaded into the costs of the products when we purchase a car or holiday travel.

The private sector has its own forms of taxation. Just by shifting functions from the public to the private sector, does not necessarily reduce what we have to pay out of our own pockets. In many cases public taxes are much more efficient and serve a much more desirable social objective than privatized taxes

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