ALP waiting list commitment commendable, but needs safeguards

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Labor’s commitment to cut waiting times in public hospitals is to be commended, but will not impact the main reason waiting lists are ballooning, says Australian Private Hospitals Association (APHA) CEO Mr Michael Roff.

The ALP has campaigned heavily on health care in the first week of the election, committing $250 million from its $2.8 billion Better Hospitals Fund to ‘blitz’ public hospital waiting lists.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the investment could pay for more than 62,000 cataract procedures or 9,800 knee replacements or 9,400 hip replacements.

But Mr Roff warned the funding would not be enough to target the real reason public hospital waiting times have continued to grow – the number of privately insured patients being treated in public hospitals.

“The funding could put a dent in public elective waiting lists, but not if public hospitals continue to chase private health insurance cash ahead of treating public patients.

“We need to address the reason those patients are waiting in the first place. We know from Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) data that public patients are languishing on public hospital elective waiting lists, while privately insured people jump ahead of them in the queue,” Mr Roff said.

AIHW data shows public patients are forced to wait twice as long as insured patients for treatment in public hospitals. The number of private patients seen annually in public hospitals has grown by half a million patients over the past decade – an average increase of 9.1 percent each year.

“While $250 million could impact those waiting lists, public hospitals are currently creaming about $1 billion annually from private health funds by harvesting privately insured patients in their emergency departments.

“Without some protections about how the funding is used, $250 million may not be enough incentive to stop those unethical practices. Without guaranteeing the Medicare principle of access to a public hospital bed solely on the basis of clinical need, the outcome could be more private patients in public hospitals.

“What makes this situation even more bizarre is that the resulting pressure on public hospitals will often mean that private hospitals are then contracted by the State Government to treat public patients – as we have seen recently in Queensland.”

Mr Roff said a better focus for the funding is investing it directly into private hospitals.

“Mr Shorten rightly points out that knee and hip replacements or cataract surgeries are not elective, they are essential. And private hospitals already perform the majority of these surgeries. The most efficient use of this funding would be to contract services to private hospitals.

“Unless the public hospitals are forced to change their behaviour, history shows us that’s exactly where the funding will end up anyway,” he said.

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