New data showing ever-lengthening waiting lists for elective surgery highlights how public hospitals “have made a rod for their own backs” by pursuing privately-insured patients.
Australian Private Hospitals Association (APHA) CEO Michael Roff said the report tells a sorry tale about the likelihood of accessing health care in a timely manner through public providers.
While 893,000 people were added to public hospital elective surgery waiting lists in 2018-19 – a 2.2 percent increase on the previous year – only 758,000 were admitted for their surgery in that period, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
“This data confirms Australian public hospital waiting lists are blowing out. They have made a rod for their own backs when it comes to waiting-list disasters,” Mr Roff said.
“They are actively coercing privately-insured patients to use their cover in the public hospital system and then pushing them ahead in the elective surgery queue, leaving Australians who rely on the public system to wait even longer,” he added.
Public patients wait twice as long overall for elective surgery – a median of 44 days for compared to 22 for the privately insured – according to the AHIW - ‘Admitted patient care’ report.
“This goes against the principles of Medicare, which was intended to ensure Australians get access to public hospital, based on clinical need and not their ability to pay,” Mr Roff said.
In 2018-19, half of all patients were admitted for elective surgery within 41 days of being added to the waiting list, an increase from 40 days the previous year and 35 days in 2014-15.
Mr Roff said the new data should not surprise anyone – state governments have faced increased criticism this year over their health policies.
In Victoria, where one in eight public hospital beds are occupied by privately-insured patients, the Auditor General found the Department of Health and Human Services had incentivised its hospitals to coerce people into using their private health insurance.
Meanwhile, the Queensland government provided $3 million in emergency funding in March to buy services from private hospitals following a waiting list blow-out.
“If public hospitals prioritised access for public patients that need their care instead of chasing money for bean counters, the public system would run the way it should,” Mr Roff said.
This 'cash grab' not only ties up beds in public hospitals, but it also significantly impacts the private health care industry, he said, helping to push up people's insurance premiums.
“It costs health funds $1.5 billion each year. Ending this practice would result in a six percent reduction in premiums and free up thousands of public hospital beds to treat public waiting-list patients. The result would be significant benefits for public and private patients,” Mr Roff said.