Station: 2BS
Program: Live & Local
Date: 23/2/2023
Time: 1:26 PM
Compere: Jaclyn Underwood
Interviewee: Dr Rachel David, CEO, Private Healthcare Australia


JACLYN UNDERWOOD: There is a conversation happening at the moment about private healthcare insurance and whether having that coverage in the bush is worth it with rising premiums. We welcome to the program now, CEO of Private Healthcare Australia, Dr Rachel David. Good afternoon.
JACLYN UNDERWOOD: Do you think that this conversation is warranted? Is there higher cost for those in the bush for private healthcare?
RACHEL DAVID: Look, what we’ve seen, particularly over the last two and a half years since the pandemic, is actually a surge of people in regional areas joining a health fund. So on average- we’ve looked at all the regional electorates, and on average, over 2600 people per electorate have actually joined a health fund in a rural area. And the reason that they’re doing that overwhelmingly is to have control over when they get admitted to hospital and where, in the event that something goes wrong. Public hospital waiting lists have blown out around the country. There’s no guarantee that if you’ve been told you need surgery, that you’ll get it on time. And appointments are very randomly allocated with long wait times, even for outpatients. And rural people just can’t afford that. They can’t afford to spend time with a painful condition or even something like going blind and not knowing when they’re going to be treated. So that’s what driving the uptake in regional areas, and that’s why households are seeing the value. I’m aware of some media reports where they kind of did some ad hoc, anecdotal vox pops, from people that have had bad experiences that in no way reflects what the overall population is thinking and doing at the moment.
JACLYN UNDERWOOD: Right. So what about premiums? I mean, are they on the rise? Have you got any data about the actual rising cost and premiums for those in regional areas?
RACHEL DAVID: Look, people- the health funds themselves are doing everything they possibly can in their power to keep premiums down. They’ve kept the rising premiums well under inflation and CPI, and they actually have done that about the same time many funds actually have been able to offer greater flexibility with certain products for people in regional areas by covering a percentage of their travel and accommodation costs. So, for example, a fund like Westfund, which is located in Lithgow – it’s a regional fund in New South Wales – has actually increased what it’s been able to provide for travel and accommodation costs. But in addition to that, Westfund has done a gap analysis about what services are available locally and has invested in some health hubs so that people don’t have to travel so far to access healthcare. So that’s an example of one fund in regional New South Wales that’s going the extra mile to help people.
JACLYN UNDERWOOD: Why don’t we look a little bit further out into more rural areas that don’t have private facilities? What happens then for these patients?
RACHEL DAVID: Well, look, I think for anybody in a remote area, it doesn’t matter whether they’ve got private health insurance or not, accessing health services is going to be a challenge. It requires people to be very organised and to anticipate issues well in advance. And actually, private health insurance for hospital cover, in particular, can help with that as well, because even when you know you’ve got to travel to the city, you’ve got predictability about when your appointments occur, the seniority of your doctor, so that you know your doctors are fully-trained and will be able to anticipate any problems coming up and when you’ll be admitted for surgery. So it does have some advantages, even if you’ve got to travel a long way.
JACLYN UNDERWOOD: Just furthering the scope to another conversation that’s happening at the moment. On a federal government level, Anthony Albanese’s Government are looking to tighten the definition of superannuation. This is something that Private Healthcare Australia supports in its relation to funding medical procedures. Is that right?
RACHEL DAVID: Yeah, look, that’s absolutely right. The situation with early withdrawal for super has veered out of control over the last couple of years to the extent that people on some pretty low incomes have been withdrawing super [Indistinct] not because they’ve got a terminal illness or because anything’s seriously wrong, but for things like cosmetic surgery, dental care, and some types of surgery that really are not mainstream and have a very low chance of success.

Now, we’ve got a few problems with that, and it’s not just the fact that some of the procedures that have been claimed are not healthcare or are not going to be of high value or of benefit to the people that are using the source of funding. The first is that, this is increasing the out-of-pocket costs for surgery. It’s having an inflationary effect, because if certain unscrupulous doctors and other providers think that they can get people to access their super balances, they’ve been putting up prices to take advantage of that. The second thing is we’ve seen a lot of very dodgy financial intermediaries come into the market that purport to be able to help people fill in the forms to access their super. You’ve got to fill in special forms for the Tax Office to be able to access your super early. These intermediaries have found their way into the materials, they’ve found their way into doctors’ offices. They’re available widely online, promising things like 100 per cent success of getting your hands on the money. And this is taking advantage of vulnerable people in a very predatory kind of way.

The other issue is that for people with chronic conditions and for people at risk of complications, they’re at risk of having a procedure and then needing follow-up care or another procedure and finding that they’re either on a waiting list or they’ve got no further funds to be able to do that. And the classic theme there is arthritis. If you need one joint replaced, chances are you’re going to need other joint fixed in future because it’s a chronic condition that affects the whole body. And people are finding that their savings have been cleaned out as a result of some of these predatory practices. So what we’re asking the Government to do is to tighten up on the definitions, so that early access is still possible but it’s a [Indistinct] genuinely have a terminal illness or a life-limiting illness. We believe that there should be firmer regulatory action to stamp out some of these predatory financial intermediaries that are targeting vulnerable people. And finally, that there’s a public education campaign to educate people about the benefits of superannuation for retirement and what it’s for. We are now living into our 90s routinely, and if you don’t have enough savings and if you clean out your savings early in life, you’re going to end up on the aged pension for a long time, which is going to be pretty tough.

JACLYN UNDERWOOD: Thank you so much for your time this afternoon. It really was a pleasure to have you on the program.
RACHEL DAVID: Yes, pleasure. Anytime.
JACLYN UNDERWOOD: Thanks. See you.
JACLYN UNDERWOOD: Dr Rachel David, CEO of Private Healthcare Australia there. They are the peak representative body for Australia’s private health insurance industry. They represent 23 Australian health funds with a combined membership of over 13 million Australians, or that’s representative of 97 per cent of the sector.
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