By now you would have heard the news that private health insurers will deliver the lowest annual premium change in 19 years from April 2020.
It has taken a whole health industry approach to get this far, and while more needs to be done across all aspects of the sector to ensure that healthcare remains affordable and accessible, it is pleasing to see the average premium change for 2020 come in at 2.92 per cent, significantly lower than the medical inflation rate of 3.8 per cent.
With low wage growth and high rental and property prices, we know affordability is an issue for health fund members and that they want value for their money, but the finger pointing at private health insurers as the culprit of rising costs - and thus a deterrent of taking up health insurance - needs to stop.
Official data from Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) shows that private health insurance membership numbers have increased over recent years, with 13.6 million Australians having cover. Some industry participants are doing much better than others, illustrated by the fact that the 27 not-for-profit Member Health funds, of which St.LukesHealth is one, has shown membership grown of 2.8 per cent in the past year, with APRA data showing that more than 31,000 people aged under 40 have joined Member Health funds since 2017.
The challenge currently being faced by the health system in Australia, and in some respects more greatly in Tasmania, is that the system is being asked to do more and pay for more because of our ageing population, rising healthcare costs – including advancements in medical technology – and the increased prevalence in chronic diseases as people live longer.
For private health insurers, this pressure results in higher premiums to fund increased healthcare demand. Quality and timely healthcare is at the heart of what the private sector does and we continue to work with hospitals, specialists, medical suppliers and the Australian Government to ensure members’ care can be funded if or when it is needed.
In respect to the public system, the pressure is evident by a higher consumption of the Commonwealth and state budgets and where this can’t be managed, we see a blow-out in waiting lists. Our current elective surgery waiting times in Tasmania are unacceptable and shows our public system is under immense stress while our doctors, specialists and allied health professionals do the best they can.
This was further evident in November 2019, when the Australian Government intervened and promised to bring forward a $15 million commitment to combat the state’s ballooning elective surgery waiting list to this year. Data from the state government’s HealthStats website shows there are 10,528 people waiting for elective surgery in Tasmania, with 745 individuals classified as Category 1, meaning they should be seen within 30 days, and a further 3926 listed as Category 2 meaning they should receive treatment within 90 days. Of the 10,528, only 57 per cent are seen within a suitable timeframe.
When it comes to dental care, more than 13,000 Tasmanian adults are waiting to receive general care or dentures through the public system, even after 50 per cent of the Tasmanian population is privately insured enabling access to affordable care at a critical stage.
The precept of healthcare in Australia relies on the public and private health systems working together, with private health insurers funding two thirds of elective surgery and half of all dental services across the country.
Having private health insurance means that members avoid long public hospital waiting lists and have timely surgery and rehabilitation coverage.
As a larger positive, it also means that some pressure is taken off the public health system, ensuring that the hospital beds are for people who need them the most.