The public health system is called Medicare . It ensures free universal access to hospital treatment and subsidised out-of-hospital medical treatment. It is funded by a 1.5% tax levy.
The private health system is funded by a number of private health insurance organisations. The largest of these is Medibank private, which is government-owned, but operates as a governement busineess enterprise under the same regulatory regime as all other registered private health funds.
Some private health insurers are 'for profit' enterprises, and some are non-profit organisations such as HCF Hleaht insurance. Some have membership restricted to particular groups, but the majority have open membership.
Most aspects of private health insurance in Australia are regulated by the Private Health Insurance Act 2007.
The private health system in Australia operates on a "community rating" basis, whereby premiums do not vary solely because of a person's previous medical history, current state of health, or (generally speaking) their age (but see Lifetime Health Cover below). Balancing this are waiting periods, in particular for pre-existing conditions (usually referred to within the industry as PEA, which stands for "pre-existing ailment"). Funds are entitled to impose a waiting period of up to 12 months on benefits for any medical condition the signs and symptoms of which existed during the six months ending on the day the person first took out insurance. They are also entitled to impose a 12-month waiting period for benefits for treatment relating to an obstetric condition, and a 2-month waiting period for all other benefits when a person first takes out private insurance. Funds have the discretion to reduce or remove such waiting periods in individual cases. They are also free not to impose them to begin with, but this would place such a fund at risk of "adverse selection", attracting a disproportionate number of members from other funds, or from the pool of intending members who might otherwise have joined other funds. It would also attract people with existing medical conditions, who might not otherwise have taken out insurance at all because of the denial of benefits for 12 months due to the PEA Rule. The benefits paid out for these conditions would create pressure on premiums for all the fund's members, causing some to drop their membership, which would lead to further rises, and a vicious cycle would ensue.
There are a number of other matters about which funds are not permitted to discriminate between members in terms of premiums, benefits or membership - these include racial origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, nature of employment, and leisure activities. Premiums for a fund's product that is sold in more than one state can vary from state to state, but not within the same state.
The Australian government has introduced a number of incentives to encourage adults to take out private hospital insurance. These include:
- Lifetime Health Cover: If a person has not taken out private hospital cover by the 1st July after their 30th birthday, then when (and if) they do so after this time, their premiums must include a loading of 2% per annum. Thus, a person taking out private cover for the first time at age 40 will pay a 20 per cent loading. The loading continues for 10 years. The loading applies only to premiums for hospital cover, not to ancillary (extras) cover.
- Medicare Levy Surcharge: People whose taxable income is greater than a specified amount (currently $50,000 for singles and $100,000 for families) and who do not have an adequate level of private hospital cover must pay a 1% surcharge on top of the standard 1.5% Medicare Levy. The rationale is that if the people in this income group are forced to pay more money one way or another, most would choose to purchase hospital insurance with it, with the possibility of a benefit in the event that they need private hospital treatment - rather than pay it in the form of extra tax as well as having to meet their own private hospital costs.
- The Australian government announced in May 2008 that it proposes to increase the thresholds, to $100,000 for singles and $150,000 for families. These changes require legislative approval. A bill to change the law has been introduced but has not yet been passed. There have been criticisms that this proposed change will cause many people to drop their private health insurance, causing a further burden on the public hospital system, and a rise in premiums for those who stay with the private system. Other commentators believe the effect will be minimal.
- Private Health Insurance Rebate: The government subsidises the premiums for all private health insurance cover, including hospital and ancillary (extras), by 30%, 35% or 40%.