Doctors, insurers, hospital operators and consumers attended the Department of Health’s workshop in mid-December to consider proposals for improving the value of private health for rural and remote consumers.
Discussing options to address affordability, the group of 32 stakeholders provided some support to the idea of increasing the private health insurance rebate based on location.
The general concept is that those who live further away from major cities have less access to health services, so they should receive a higher rebate.
According to the workshop’s summary, some attendees were not so supportive of the idea, arguing “there was more merit in focusing on increasing the value of products through increased access to services and benefits”.
The workshop was held as part of the Turnbull Government’s greater push to reform the private health insurance sector, fuelled by the establishment of the Private Health Ministerial Advisory Committee in September 2016 to provide advice on reforms.
Ensuring the industry meets the healthcare needs of rural and remote Australians has become a key focus of that push.
Health Cover in the Bush
With private services especially lacking in the bush, fewer people have taken out health insurance, resulting in unnecessary pressure on the public system.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 52.3% of people in outer regional or remote areas have no insurance, compared to only 39.3% in major cities.
Suspended Health Minister Sussan Ley, who is currently under investigation over allegations of a Gold Coast trip billed on taxpayer dollars, told The Australian last week she was “supportive of initiatives which encourage Australians living in rural and remote areas to take up and maintain private health insurance”.
“The government wants to support insurers offering products that genuinely meet the needs of people living in rural and regional areas of Australia,” she said.
Consumers Health Forum against the idea
The Consumers Health Forum of Australia (CHF) stated in a recent media release that health insurance and the rebate that subsidises it should take pressure off the public health system – not contribute to it.
CHF CEO Leanne Wells said changing the rebate in the hope of improved health benefits for country consumers has limitations.
— CHF of Australia (@CHFofAustralia) January 4, 2017
“To suggest that lifting the rebate in country areas will bring any significant benefits to regional consumers is not borne out by the experience with the health insurance rebate so far this century,” Wells said.
“While the rebate led to a big increase in people with health insurance, health insurance premiums have continued to increase well ahead of inflation while many members now find their cover being pared back.
“With fewer people in the bush having health insurance, and less likely to afford it given lower incomes outside cities, it would be highly inequitable to expect the taxpayer to contribute yet more to bolstering health funds and the private health sector, while the Medicare benefit freeze raises the prospect of patients across the board facing higher out of pocket costs.”
Rural Doctors Supportive
President of the Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA), Dr Ewen McPhee, said anything that makes it easier and more affordable for rural patients to access healthcare and better utilise private health insurance is worthy of consideration.
“We strongly support the need for a better deal for rural patients who hold Private Health Insurance, as well as practical measures that make Private Health Insurance more appealing and useable for rural patients” McPhee said.
Online video platform solution to remote healthcare
A recent partnership between CSIRO’s Data61 and regional allied health network Health Team Australia (HTA) will hopefully help address health inequities in rural and remote areas with its easy-to-use “telehealth” solution.
HTA has been rolling out this real-time communication online video platform to its customers since November 2016.
Named “Coviu”, the new video consultation service is expected to connect up to 20,000 patients with online healthcare professionals.
HTA spokesperson Andrew Mahony said Coviu provides rural residents with the opportunity to stay in their community for longer as they age.
“Coviu gives health professionals direct access to the lives of remote patients so they can prescribe a health plan that is meaningful to their lives and relevant to their situation,” Mr Mahony said.
“It enables us to provide individuals and organisations in rural and remote areas with evidence-based support and on-demand access to allied health experts.
Coivu Project Director Dr Silvia Pfeiffer said the platform allows practitioners to live-share medical data and images.
“Approximately 10 per cent of the Australian population is spread across 90 percent of its area, and these people have poor access to medical specialists that’s taken for granted in large metropolitan areas,” Dr Pfeiffer said.
“There is a real need to make video consultations a standard delivery mechanism of health services across Australia. Coviu does so in an affordable manner with the tools that clinicians need.”