The Australian Private Hospitals Association (APHA) has cautiously welcomed the release of new statistics showing a small increase in the number of Australians with private health insurance.
Statistics released by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) for the three months to the end of September showed a 0.9 per cent increase (104,000 members) in the number of people with private health insurance.
It was the first increase since June 2015.
“While it is encouraging to see a small increase in health fund membership, these figures should be treated with caution," said APHA CEO Michael Roff.
"We know health insurers have been providing premium relief to policyholders due to COVID19 and this may be artificially inflating the figures. We need to know if this increase will be sustained or is just a statistical anomaly,” he said.
Mr Roff said one clear positive was the increase in youth participation.
“The biggest increase was in the 35-to-39 age bracket, followed by those 20-to-24 years old, indicating the youth discount introduced by the Federal Government may be having an impact and bringing younger people into the system.
“Notwithstanding the small increase in membership, there is a very strong case to restore the health insurance rebate for low-income earners. In the years since it was introduced the effective rebate has been reduced from 30 percent to less than 25 percent. 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 Federal Government has an opportunity in the 2021 Budget to provide significant relief to these families and make the rebate count again.”
Mr Roff said there was also a 23.5 per cent increase in episodes of care in private hospitals this quarter, reflecting the easing of COVID-19 elective surgery restrictions. This is still 5.4 per cent lower than the same quarter last year.
“When you exclude Victoria, private hospital activity is only 0.7 percent lower than the same quarter in 2019.
“Victorian private hospitals are below normal activity levels as many have been involved in the Victorian COVID response and subject to ongoing elective surgery restrictions in that state. With these elective surgery restrictions due to be lifted at the end of this month we are hopeful that activity can increase to a level that will start to clear the elective surgery backlog.”
Mr Roff said, regardless of the measures chosen, action to improve the affordability in private health insurance needs to be considered "as a matter of urgency."
“There are estimates the backlog in elective surgery resulting from COVID-19 surgical restrictions could take years to clear, even with the full capacity of the public and private systems. We need to urgently address private health insurance affordability to ensure Australians can continue to access private hospital services because the waiting times in public hospitals will just be too long,” he added.