Federal government hits private health insurance
Private health insurance is an expensive item and this rise could well push some people out of the system -- particularly if they have large families. Pushing yet more people into the already overworked public system will hit the poor most of all
ABOUT 2.4 million wealthy Australians will pay up to $1000 a year more for health cover from July after Labor rescued its private health rebate reform, which delivers half of its projected budget surplus next year.
The government's means test on the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate is expected to receive parliamentary approval next week. Greens MP Adam Bandt backs it, Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie is "inclined to support it" and regional crossbencher Rob Oakeshott is understood to be supporting the measure.
The policy change will raise $746.3m in 2012-13, and is crucial to the government's bid to achieve its $1.5 billion surplus.
Passage of the measure through parliament three years after it was first proposed - and after it was twice rejected - will mark a significant victory for the government.
The private health rebate means test is a key plank in Labor's drive to clamp down on middle-class welfare that has also disqualified families earning $150,000 or more from the Baby Bonus and Family Tax Benefit Part B and frozen the indexation of family welfare payments until 2014.
Victorian Health Minister David Davis and health funds yesterday warned that the measure would force tens of thousands of people to drop their health cover and many more to reduce their cover, increasing the pressure on the public hospital system. And the opposition warned that it could force some doctors to withdraw their services from rural communities.
The means test would push up the price of health insurance for families earning more than $166,000 and singles on more than $83,000 a year by between $315 and $935 a year.
Families earning more than $258,000 a year and individuals more than $129,000 a year would lose the rebate entirely.
The government is still battling to win Greens support for an element of the legislation that will increase the tax penalty that applies to wealthy people who do not have private health cover.
Greens leader Bob Brown yesterday said his party would "concede" and support a rise in the Medicare levy surcharge if the government put the $80m a year it raised directly into a public dental scheme.
However, Health Minister Tanya Plibersek said she would not be "reading the newspapers one day and making a policy announcement about dental the next just because the Greens ask it".
Senator Brown confirmed his party would support the means test yesterday; Mr Oakeshott declined to comment; and Mr Wilkie said: "I can say that I am inclined to support it."
The government says three out of four, or 7.7 million, health fund members will be unaffected by the change and it predicts that only 27,000 will drop their health cover when their subsidy is reduced or abolished.
"It's important to remember that most people will not lose the subsidy entirely; as their incomes increase, the subsidy will decrease," Ms Plibersek said.
Health insurers have predicted 1.6 million health fund members would quit their health cover over the next five years if the means test goes ahead.
Mr Davis told state parliament yesterday if tens of thousands of Victorians dropped or reduced their cover because of the means test, "there would be a significant impact on the public health system".
"That would necessarily put greater pressure on the public health system, emergency departments, elective surgery lists and so forth," Mr Davis said.
Australian Medical Association chief Steve Hambleton said if the means test increased the pressure on public hospitals, the federal government should have to top up public hospital funding.
Opposition health spokesman Peter Dutton said many Australians would face higher premiums as a result of the means test and younger and healthier people might quit their cover, pushing up premiums for everyone else. "Half the nation has private health insurance and if you drive people out of private health insurance on to the public system that's already overstretched, we'll just get bad health outcomes."
Private Healthcare Australia chief Michael Armitage said he would not stop lobbying MPs to stop the means test until a vote was taken.
"My experience is until the vote is counted, no one can count on any vote," he said.
Demand for public hospital emergency care on the rise countrywide
DEMAND for emergency department care in Australia rose by almost 40 per cent in the past decade. A new study shows the growth in demand exceeded population growth.
Prof Gerry FitzGerald, of the Queensland University of Technology, said the ageing population might partly explain the rise. "The growth in demand for ED services is a partial contributor to the crowding in EDs," he said.
Researchers found that there was no evidence increased demand was because of patients turning up inappropriately.
The results were published by the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine.
Feds support new brown coal power station
Brown coal has been a great resource for Victoria because it is so cheap but Greenies hate it because it does give off some real pollution. The new plant aims to reduce pollution
Resources Minister Martin Ferguson will this morning throw a lifeline to a contentious coal-fired power plant project in Victoria's Latrobe Valley that is subject to a legal tussle with state environmental authorities.
Mr Ferguson will also pledge $100 million of Commonwealth funds for CarbonNet — a carbon capture and storage project in the Latrobe.
The Greens are strongly opposed to the controversial HRL power plant project at Morwell. In granting the project a six-month extension, Mr Ferguson will make it clear that this is the last lifeline for a project that began under the Howard government.
Following this morning's announcement, green groups will likely accuse Mr Ferguson of a double standard after he pulled the pin this week on a dawdling solar project, the Moree Solar Farm, which was in line for $306 million in government help.
Mr Ferguson re-opened the bidding on the solar money, allowing three other shortlisted projects to have another shot.
The six-month extension to the controversial HRL Dual Gas project near Morwell will allow the project to meet the terms of a contract first established by the Howard government.
The Resources Minister says this will be the final extension given to the project, which has been under way since 2009, and is the subject of a legal challenge by Environment Victoria.
Mr Ferguson has firmly rebuffed the green opposition, and argued the project, which aims to optimise brown coal and lower its emissions, should have the opportunity to proceed.
"Despite political pressure from the Greens and others, the Australian government has treated the HRL grant with the same measure of good faith that we've shown to other challenging clean energy technologies – including the Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund grant to Solar Systems," Mr Ferguson says.
"The government is absolutely committed to a technology neutral approach and proper administration of grant programs in accordance with due process."
In Morwell this morning, Mr Ferguson will argue the $1-billion-plus CarbonNet project will provide job opportunities in the Latrobe — and preserve the value of brown coal as Australia moves to lower carbon dioxide emissions.
"I hope today's announcement takes us one step further to not only shoring up the value of Victoria's brown coal resource, but perhaps more importantly helping to secure the economic future of the Latrobe Valley," Mr Ferguson will say this morning at a function in the regional city of Morwell.
Negligent education bureaucrats in NSW hit disabled children
AN investigation into the debacle that left hundreds of disabled students without school transport has blamed senior bureaucrats at the NSW Department of Education, but cleared Education Minister Adrian Piccoli.
Former director-general of education Ken Boston today handed his report into the bungle to Premier Barry O'Farrell, who said it demonstrated a "systemic breakdown" within the department.
On the first day of the school year, 740 disabled students were left without transport, after operators pulled out of some runs at the last minute because of complaints over a new payment system.
Mr Boston's report is scathing of the department's handling of the operators' complaints. He says the department repeatedly failed to tell Mr Piccoli that some students could be left without transport, even though it had known since October there was a risk that would happen.
"The prevailing culture seems to have been one of telling senior officers, and even the director-general and the minister, what it was thought they wanted to hear, not what they needed to know," the report says.
"I criticise the Deputy Director-General, Finance and Infrastructure and the Director of Finance Shared Services for failing to deliver this $80 million program of vital importance to the most vulnerable children in NSW, and their parents.
"They have damaged the reputation of the Department of Education and Communities in the opinion of the transport operators, the community and the NSW Government." Mr Boston recommended disciplinary action be taken against both senior education officials.
Mr O'Farrell, who received the report at 11am (AEDT), said he was angered by the report's findings. "What the report details is a systemic breakdown in the Department of Education and Communities in relation to this transport scheme for children with disabilities," he said in Sydney.
"As I read the report I got increasingly angry at what was clearly a lack of focus by the department on the needs of those children and their families. "I have asked the Director-General of Education and Communities to implement the recommendations and advise me what action will be taken against the two senior staff members about which Dr Boston made specific recommendations of disciplinary action."
The State Opposition has demanded the sacking of Mr Piccoli, saying he should have acted when he was told there were problems with the contract last year. However, Mr O'Farrell defended his minister, saying his department had failed to advise him about the potential debacle despite repeated requests for information.
"Mr Piccoli and his staff have at all times sought to handle this as is appropriate," he said.
Mr Piccoli said he was angry that he didn't get the sort of advice that he should have been getting from the department. "I asked all of the questions I should have asked," he said. "I should have been given better advice and more accurate advice so that this problem could have been averted. "The advice that was given to me was insufficient, wrong.
"The Boston report clearly says that the department have let me down and the Government down, but have most importantly let those parents down of those students who were affected on the first day of school."
Telstra forces BigPond customers to use Hotmail
This sounds very pesky. I store a lot of photos in a "blog" facility associated with my Bigpond A/c. Will they have to be moved to a new address? Altering addresses would create a huge workload
TELSTRA is set to ditch its BigPond email service and force its 4.2 million Australian customers onto Hotmail and Windows Live accounts.
BigPond users' addresses won't change, but their emails, photos and data will now be stored online in a cloud-based server operated by Microsoft.
The change will apply to all users with a Telstra BigPond Webmail or Myinbox account from April.
Telstra media head JB Rousselot said account holders would be given help to make the switch.
"To assist customers we have set up a dedicated self-help website including 'how to' videos, Q&As and updates on progress of the changeover," he said.
"Our social media channels and 13 POND are ready to help our customers if they need help with moving photos, blogs and other applications."
But the Herald Sun believes those who choose not to transfer their material may risk losing it entirely.
More than 500,000 Victorian accounts will be affected in what is an extension of the alliance Telstra formed with Microsoft in 2008.
Kevin Grobler from Microsoft Australia said the new system would expand existing services and more readily enable sharing.
"The value for BigPond customers is that Hotmail offers a fast, secure and reliable email service," he said. The new system offered "enhanced security features, and virtually unlimited storage of photos and documents in the cloud with SkyDrive".
A spokesperson for Telstra indicated the account migration would most likely begin in April or May.