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Australian Health Review Australian Health Review Society
Journal of the Australian Healthcare & Hospitals Association

Policy change and private health insurance: did the cheapest policy do the trick?

James R G Butler

Australian Health Review 25(6) 33 - 41
Published: 2002


From the introduction of Australia's national health insurance scheme (Medicare) in 1984 until recently, the proportion of the population covered by private health insurance declined steadily. Following an Industry Commission inquiry into the private health insurance industry in 1997,a number of policy changes were effected in an attempt to reverse this trend. The main policy changes were of two types: "carrots and sticks" financial incentives that provided subsidies for purchasing, or tax penalties for not purchasing, private health insurance; and lifetime community rating, which aimed to revise the community rating regulations governing private health insurance in Australia. This paper argues that the membership uptake that has occurred recently is largely attributable to the introduction of lifetime community rating which goes some way towards addressing the adverse selection associated with the previous community rating regulations. This policy change had virtually no cost to government. However, it was introduced after subsidies for private health insurance were already in place. The chronological sequencing of these policies has resulted in substantial increases in government expenditure on private health insurance subsidies, with such increases not being a cause but rather an effect of increased demand for private health insurance.The paper also considers whether the decline in membership that has occurred since the implementation of lifetime community rating presages the re-emergence of an adverse selection problem in private health insurance. Much of the decline to date may be attributable to failure on the part of some members to honour premium payments when they first fell due. However, the changing age composition of the insured pool since September 2000,resulting in an increasing average age of those insured, suggests the possible reappearance of an adverse selection dynamic. Thus the 'trick' delivered by lifetime community rating may not be maintained in the longer term.

© AHHA 2002

Committee on Publication Ethics

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