JOHN THOMPSON. The regional health “plan”.

Jun 18, 2016

The Minister for Health, Sussan Ley, advises that, as Member for Farrer, she represents some of Australia’s most remote and disadvantaged communities and therefore understands that access to health services, as well as people’s priorities, can differ significantly to those in our capital cities.

She gives some examples, namely

“ the long distances often travelled for both basic and specialist health care, combined with the higher-risk nature of rural work, makes ambulance and travel costs a priority in some communities.”

“In regional areas there is also higher importance given to innovative and emerging technologies such as tele-health and remote monitoring, as well as access to local allied and primary health care services supported by private health insurers, such as optometrists, dentists, physiotherapists and weight management.”

“Someone in a rural community may also not have a choice between a local public and private hospital; therefore choice of accommodation for a local hospital stay is not as high a priority as it may be in a capital city.”

Ms Ley, a Liberal Party member, admits that her departmental survey found that about three-quarters of Australians living in rural or remote communities believed they were not receiving value for money from their private health insurance, compared to 68 per cent in our major cities. This rural disadvantage has been known for years yet the Nationals have blindly followed the Liberal Party ideology in relation to private health insurance and, instead of providing services and facilities for their constituents in rural areas, they have maintained very substantial government support for subsidies to private health insurers which have failed to meet their rural communities’ needs.

Now, with an election looming, the Coalition has released a “plan” to address this inequity. And what is this plan? It is a promise to work with rural health and consumer groups, private health insurers and other key stakeholders to develop a private health insurance product designed specifically for Australians living in rural and remote areas.

This would be a very complex undertaking. What are rural and remote areas? Which areas already have sufficient services? How would such a “product” relate to current offerings? Who would be eligible for such a “product”? What services would it cover? What bureaucracy would be required to administer the “product”? And what extra government support will private health insurers require to provide such a “product”? (Or will we just see private insurance levies increase to cover it?)

This has all the hallmarks of the recent less than useful proposal to provide gold/silver/bronze rankings to health insurance offerings – while continuing to provide billions of dollars of support to the private insurers.

A more useful (and appreciated) “product” for rural communities would be to redirect the resources that are currently provided to private health insurers to actual health services in country areas.

John Thompson is an economist with experience in primary health.

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