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Young Aussies and Bupa? Why bother?

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It will not be surprising to readers that the changes recently announced by Bupa have caused anxiety among patients and outrage among the medical community in equal measure. However, one aspect rarely mentioned is the fact that young Australians are particularly short-changed by private health insurance.

Medical students experienced the Bupa changes from two perspectives – as young Australians long disillusioned by what the private health sector can offer them; and as future doctors despairing for what this means for the workforce we will inherit.

According to the APRA statistics for September-December 2017, the largest net drop in coverage was for people aged 25-29. A total of 11,170 people in this age bracket gave their funds the flick. A further 10,505 people aged 30-34 did the same.

In 2017, Choice, an independent consumer advocacy group, made waves by claiming that singles under 30 earning under $90,000 annually are better off without insurance at all.

Of course young people aren’t buying into private health insurance. Frustration with ‘junk policies’ is at an all-time high, with students tired of paying for schemes that don’t translate into coverage for the essential health costs that they will actually face over their lives.

Young people were already leaving their funds in droves when it was announced that from April premiums would rise by 3.95 per cent, far above the inflation rate and average annual growth of wages. Faced with paying more for the same policy, it would have been fair to wonder, why would any young Australian bother with private health cover at all?

For many, the last straw has come as Bupa, the largest private health insurer in Australia, announced its intention to downgrade policies, introduce exclusions, no longer provide a no-gap benefit in public emergency admissions, and only pay its higher-gap scheme benefit in Bupa-contracted hospitals.

For medical students, this is a double-edged sword. Not only do the Bupa changes affect them personally, now they will also reduce their ability to function as service providers in a healthcare system that provides universal access, regardless of means.

Bupa’s claims that it is not trying to dominate the insurance marketplace ring hollow. Like Henry Ford’s claim that a customer could have any colour they like as long as it’s black, it is ironic that Bupa claims its customers can have as much choice with no-gap coverage as ever, as long as they visit a Bupa-contracted facility. If Bupa succeeds in this venture, other insurers will follow, and the consumer choice that we rightfully value will be up for sale.

Private health insurance is a crucial part of the medical system, and provides much-needed relief on the public sector, but customers, particularly sick patients, deserve a fair go. There is a reason that comparisons to an Americanised healthcare system are rejected so strongly by Bupa’s lobbyists – the Australian public knows instinctively that commercialised, managed care will benefit no-one but the insurers themselves.