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The Advertiser are reporting: Medibank sale heralds overhaul for basic cover
THE sale of government-owned insurer Medibank Private will be sweetened with a major overhaul of private health insurance, extending basic hospital cover to such services as dentistry and physiotherapy.
The biggest shake-up of private health insurance in a decade was announced to coincide with confirmation the nation's largest health insurer will be sold.
Dentistry, physiotherapy, podiatry, psychology and other preventative care will be included in basic hospital cover, Health Minister Tony Abbott said.
"Because of the changes that have taken place to clinical practice over the last couple of decades, there are all sorts of rather important health services which no longer take place exclusively in hospitals, but which are not comprehensively covered out of hospital by Medicare," he said. "Private health insurance will henceforth be able to cover anything which will prevent a private hospital episode."
Polls have shown opposition among policy holders to selling Medibank Private, which has 30 per cent of the national market, but Finance Minister Nick Minchin said as regulator and owner of the industry giant, the government was conflicted and it was time for it to get out.
Opposition health spokeswoman Julia Gillard said "given the timing of this announcement, Australians are entitled to be suspicious that these changes are all about maximising the sale price of Medibank Private rather than making private health insurance better value for money".
Insure to avoid trip to hospital
Patricia Karvelas and Clara Pirani
April 27, 2006
PRIVATE health insurance will be dramatically expanded to pay for more treatments and programs that prevent people from getting sick and eventually going to hospital.
In a move that reflects a worldwide shift in healthcare towards helping people to change their behaviour before they develop diseases, insurance companies will be able to pay for gym membership and quit-smoking programs as part of their basic private hospital cover.
Until now, such items might only have been included in costly extras cover.
The expanded cover will include doctor-approved fitness programs and health plans to manage diseases such as diabetes through lifestyle changes.
Helping people with chronic foot problems, such as providing shoe inserts that counteract poor posture, can stop knee, hip and back damage that may require costly operations later in life.
"In future, Australians will be able to insure not only for hospital admission but also for services to prevent further hospitalisation that can safely be delivered out of the hospital gate," Health Minister Tony Abbott said yesterday.
The Howard Government has also confirmed it will sell the nation's largest health insurer, Medibank Private, but said loyal members would not be offered shares if there was a float.
Announcing the changes, Mr Abbott stressed the Government did not believe they would put additional pressure on the level of health insurance premiums.
About 43 per cent of Australians - slightly less than nine million people - are covered by private insurance. A taxpayer-funded rebate of 30 per cent of premiums cost $2.8 billion last year, according to government statistics.
Mr Abbott said physiotherapy, podiatry, psychology and dentistry would come in to what is currently described as the private health hospital table: the list of things the Government and insurance companies agree can be covered.
The list of what was previously regarded as an extra and will now be covered by standard insurance has yet to be finalised.
It will be up to the companies to decide how many of these they will include, but the Government believes competition will force companies to offer more prevention services.
Australian Health Insurance Association chief Michael Armitage hailed the changes as "potentially quite revolutionary" and predicted they would lead to an explosion in programs designed to stop people developing serious illnesses.
"A good example is diabetes: if someone is unlucky enough to have diabetes, they are potentially subject to various complications including renal failure, eye diseases, vascular diseases, and they sometimes need intensive care to stabilise blood sugar," Dr Armitage said. "We would expect that we would be offering better care at a cheaper end of the spectrum, but we are not doing it for cost reasons."
Private hospitals said the changes would accelerate improvements they were already experimenting with to lower cost.
Australian Private Hospitals Association executive director Michael Roff said some private hospitals were already providing treatment to patients in their own homes. "Certain classes of patients are better off being treated in their home rather than in an acute hospital bed," he said.
Opposition Health spokeswoman Julia Gillard reacted cautiously, saying Labor would not want the liberalisation to lead to people being able to claim for things such as gym shoes.
"There's a line between a sensible expansion to support for the provision of in-home services and just an open slather liberalisation that takes us down the gimmicky initiatives that just put up premiums," she said.
Labor has backed prevention programs but is concerned about the insurance industry getting another taxpayer boost or premiums being forced up.
Finance Minister Nick Minchin said the timing of the sale of Medibank Private would depend on the Telstra sale. He said premiums would not rise.
"We, as owners of these two businesses, would not want to be competing with ourselves or cannibalising one sale at the expense of another," he said. The money from the sale would go towards a boost in medical research in next month's budget.
But Ms Gillard said government claims that the sale of Medibank Private meant it could take a tougher approach to companies seeking increases in premiums were a clear admission that in the past the Howard Government had "weakly given in" to the private health insurance lobby.
Australian Medical Association president Mukesh Haikerwal said the sale of Medibank Private could increase premiums.
"It would have been better for the fund to be mutualised so any benefits would flow directly to the members," he said.
The rules that force people who sign up for health insurance after they turn 30 to pay more each year will also be relaxed. Now, if a person stays in a fund for 10 years, the 2 per cent penalty surcharge will be dropped.