Demand for private hospital care is bouncing back, but is yet to reach pre-pandemic levels according to the latest data.
Australian Private Hospitals Association (APHA) CEO Michael Roff said episodes of care are increasing, but still down on 2019 levels at the same time.
There was a 24-percent rise in episodes of care from the June to December 2020 quarters according to the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA). But patient numbers were still impacted by lockdowns in Victoria and short-term restrictions in South Australia.
“This data shows us an increase in episodes of care in the private sector – some of which will be helping public hospitals to battle their large elective surgery waiting lists – but it is still 10 percent lower than the same period pre-pandemic,” Mr Roff said.
“There is still some work to be done before the sector is fully recovered.”
He said the end of the JobKeeper support extension on 28 March might halt the continued uptick in Australians taking up private health insurance – hospital treatment membership rose by 34,801 in the December quarter.
“This continued increase is good, though it is not as high as in the September quarter. However, there may yet be another blow for health insurance as COVID-19-related income supports are withdrawn,” Mr Roff said.
“This highlights the need for the Federal Government to assist households to keep their insurance by restoring the rebate for low-income earners in the Budget.
“These households face a ‘double whammy’ of increased premiums and reduced rebates, because every year the value of their private health insurance rebate goes down. The Government can provide significant relief to those families and make the rebate count again,” he added.
Reduced levels of hospital activity due to COVID-19 has limited claims health insurers were required to pay and according to APRA they are now holding $1.8 billion in deferred claims liabilities.
“This is money sitting in the banks of private health insurers expected to be paid out as elective surgery and other procedures catch up post-lockdown.
“If these claims are not made due to capacity restraints, that money should be returned to private health insurance members via reductions in premiums. If insurers are serious about lower premiums for Australians, they will readily agree to this,” Mr Roff said.
Mr Roff was encouraged by data showing a reduction in public hospitals ‘harvesting’ private insurance in their emergency departments, both over the quarter and in the 12 months to December 2020.
“These waiting-list issues should be a wake-up call for the public hospital system to prioritise access for public patients, not health insurance revenue,” he said.
“Private hospitals have already stepped up to the mark to assist the public system during the pandemic, now that hospitals are returning to ‘normal’ we look forward to seeing public hospital waiting lists reduce along with the number of private patients treated in public hospitals.”