Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

BILLS: Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Seniors Health Card and Other Measures) Bill 2014; Second Reading

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (10:38): The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Seniors Health Card and Other Measures) Bill 2014. Has a number of schedules. We know that here and in the House today the major focus on this bill will be around changes brought forward by the government on their Seniors Health Card. But I think it is important to put on record straight away that we will be moving amendments that will separate schedule 1, which is about the Seniors Health Care Card, to the other machinery-of-government type changes that are included in this bill.

We will be opposing the government's proposition around the Seniors Health Card, for a number of reasons. We know that the Seniors Health Card has been an important element in our social security network. We know that because we actually introduced it, and we believe that it has a strong role-or, indeed, it did have a strong role-in the way our social security system operated for those people who were ineligible for the pension because of their income assets base but were still being looked at by our government to see how special processes in our system could relate to them. In particular, the Seniors Health Card was focused on issues around bulk billing GP appointments so that GPs would always have the discretion to offer bulk billing for patients who came to them with a Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. It also focused on reduction of out-of-pocket hospital medical expenses, another thing that was seen as important and that many people in this situation did use. Another big issue was discounts, and I know so many people in this place talk with people who are older and talk about the way that they balance their incomes.

One of the very important aspects of this healthcare card has been that it has had a history across the states of accessing a range of discounts and processes, mainly, as we have discussed many times, by state and local governments. There was an identification that whilst you were not on the age pension at least you had this healthcare card, which had been given by the Commonwealth and which was a trigger point for some people to receive payments. The way the current scheme works is that this healthcare card is available for people who have incomes of $50,000 or less who are not eligible for the pension but have those income restrictions and also for a family receiving family payments.

The major reason we are concerned about this particular change is that at the current time-when there has been such rhetoric put out by the government about the need for tougher measures, the need for targeting, the need for ensuring that every dollar is spent most effectively in our system-we do not believe it is appropriate to look at a process that, according to the figures we have been given, will add just under $100 million to the budget over a period of time when we have seen in this place the range of proposals that have been brought forward by the government in a budget that is attacking people across the board, attacking people who are most vulnerable. We do not believe that this is the time to bring in a process of raising entitlement, of making it harder for people to access services, particularly as those things I have read into the record-the areas where this card was being used-are all, in other parts of the budget that has been brought before us, under attack by the same government.

The first issue was access to GP bulk billing. While we have not seen the legislation, we know-and the whole of our community has been talking and arguing and debating the proposal being put forward by the government-that every person who accesses a GP service will, for a period of time, have to pay a contribution. We call it a tax. I know that the government does not use that terminology, and I am sure that will be part of any comment that is made. But, for the same people to whom this proposal in front of us, in this bill, will extend an opportunity, the government is taking away that very opportunity. We have heard this proposal debated, and we have heard it presented by the health minister since the budget was announced-a clarity of explanation, although we sometimes think it has not been that clear, but a clarity of intent-that every person who would be accessing a GP service would be expected to be paying a con-contribution. So, if you have your Commonwealth Seniors Health Card, you still will be paying a co-contribution. On that basis, I wonder whether this will actually respond to the group that the now government went out to encourage for their support, if that particular aspect of having the healthcare card will not have the same impact.

I also talked about the aspects of PBS medicines in terms of being able to access the system that we treasure so much in this country. Mr Acting Deputy President, as you know, in the same budget the government has put forward a proposal which will increase the co-contribution for all people who would be accessing that same system. So, again, the value of this card, which I know has been the subject of discussion for a long time, will be eroded in the very same budget as the government brought forward the proposal to extend the eligibility and the number of people who will be entitled to use this card across the country.

The other aspect is one that so many of us talked about after the budget came through. Older people across our community came to us with concern about the proposal by the government, which has been put forward and passed, to limit the Commonwealth contribution towards discounts and concessions through the ending of the partnership between the Commonwealth government and the state governments on a range of concession measures. Many states have had their own systems around this, and then the state governments woke up and found that the Commonwealth contribution towards their concession systems was going to be reduced. There was great concern by state premiers across our country. In my own state, we have the unedifying spectacle of our state Premier and Treasurer saying originally that they were not going to increase the state contribution to allow the same range of concessions to be available to people who had access to either the pension or the Commonwealth seniors healthcare card. But then, because of community pressure, they had to change their minds because it was such an important element. So another core use of the Commonwealth seniors healthcare card is at risk.

The bill before the Senate today allows indexation of the eligibility rates for this card, which effectively widens the eligibility numbers across the country. We do not have figures around how many more people will be able to access the card, but the budget papers clearly say that this will mean an expenditure of over $90 million from the budget for the increased access that people will have to the Commonwealth seniors healthcare card.

Another point is that the same budget introduced two other proposals around the same card. One, of course, is the proposal to include a particular form of superannuation to be taken into account when people are being assessed for eligibility for the healthcare card. This change will reduce the number of people who will be able to access the Commonwealth seniors healthcare card. So we have this bill, which provides for the changing of the process to an indexation model; and then we have another proposal coming before the parliament which will change the eligibility to get the card. The government is increasing the number of people who will be able to access the card and, with another piece of legislation, reducing the number of people who will be able to access it. This causes immense confusion in the community.

Another concern, raised by members in discussing this legislation when it went through the House, is the fact that so many things are happening at the same time to the same group of people that there is a great lack of understanding and confusion about exactly what is happening to them, what they will be able to claim and what will happen in the future. If there is so much playing around in this space in one budget, their concern is, most clearly, what will happen in the future. The budget, with two different pieces of legislation, affects the same group of people with the same card. The budget is bringing about so many changes to people looking at moving into their retirement years. All of those changes, as you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, are planned to be introduced in 2017, whereas this particular change is scheduled to come about much quicker than that. But, again, there is this lack of clarity in the community about exactly what people's entitlements are and what the government is planning, with the range of things that are happening at the same time in the social welfare area.

We have changes to the pension, with the eligibility age being extended to 70. So many people have expressed great concern. They are worried about their futures. There are a range of issues around indexation of the pension. The term 'indexation' has been used in many ways. At the same time that we are looking at introducing an indexation model for the Commonwealth seniors health card, we are looking at changing indexation of family payments and of the pension in the future.

I do not believe people in the community have a real understanding of the range of changes they are facing. We will be discussing legislation dealing with these changes later this week and later in the session. I am particularly concerned about the amazing and quite targeted cuts to a range of social welfare payments. We have seen cuts to family payments, in the area of youth unemployment and in the way that all pensions will be indexed. All of these things have been targeted for quite significant savings. The rationale behind all of this that has been presented to this parliament and to people in the wider community has been the budget crisis, with the terrible cost of our social welfare system to the community.

We have consistently heard about breaking the age of entitlement. That is to ensure that people across our nation will look at themselves and ask whether or not they are entitled to a particular payment and whether or not they should be entitled to a particular payment from the government. A pile of guilt has been put on people of all ages across our community, from young people looking at leaving school and moving into the workforce to people who are balancing families and work responsibilities to people who are getting older and looking at retirement. Changes have been proposed around all of their entitlements. Most concerning for so many of us are the issues around the disability support pension. People who have significant disabilities have been told that there will be changes to our system to make it more effective, to make it more targeted, to ensure that there is no waste and, as the government has described it, to stop our community from having a sense of entitlement.

Everyone is concerned about what is going to happen to them because of changes being made to the way their payments will be delivered. While that process is occurring, the bill before us today actually widens an entitlement by just under $100 million. That is money which could be extraordinarily well targeted to other areas, particularly with regard to the horror of the youth unemployment measures that will be put forward in this place. Under this bill $100 million will be put into a program which is in place, which has been working and which has been particularly developed to give people access to bulk billing, to PBS medications and to various discounts in their states, all of which have been subject to other budget bills. This has been put forward as a spend. We do not support the spend in this current process.

We do support considering the way that our whole social welfare system works. We do support looking at the processes that are being put in place by this government to look at simplifying our social welfare system. We support having a debate and communication within the community about how we can make the system more direct and simple. At the same time that the McClure process is going on, this bill comes before us because it was a government commitment during the election campaign.

I will not go down the track of talking about broken promises. I will not go down the track of talking about how many promises were made during the election campaign, which the government are now moving away from because of what they have described as the dire financial crisis. We have a whole range of promises that were made to people that can be broken because of a changed position because we have to be more focused, we have to be more responsible, we cannot be looking at entitlement. We can move away from those, but we would bring forward this process, which would extend eligibility for a number of people to entitlements-and people are already questioning whether or not they are going to be real.

We will not be supporting schedule 1 of this bill. We will be moving an amendment which separates schedule 1 from the rest of the schedules. We support the other schedules; they are machinery-of-government issues that need to be tidied up. There are times when these kinds of machinery-of-government issues are brought forward and just have to go through the parliament to make sure that they are clarified and that the system can be more straightforward. So we do support those. We are wondering why they have been linked to this particular bill, but we know in some cases it is just a matter of putting things together to get them through the parliament.

We actually support the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. It has a true purpose. We do not believe that an indexation change effectively targets the group and the kinds of services that we have in place for this. We think it is not a timely introduction of the spending measure-again, a spending measure of almost $100 million, and there are differences around how close that figure gets. But in a budget which has so seriously attacked the entitlements of many people in our community, which has been backed up by a government saying we need to make these changes, I do not feel that changing an indexation measure for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card is the best way forward. There are opportunities for us to have discussions over the next couple of years, when we are looking at the social welfare system and how it works best, to ensure that we can get something that is workable that does not confuse, because too often there is added confusion when you make changes.

This particular payment has not been subject to indexation in the past; we are now introducing that. We are changing indexation with other payments. This is not what we consider the best way for our welfare system at the moment and we do not support this change.