The private health system demonstrates its value during COVID-19

COVID-19 has certainly challenged and changed the way of life for many.

Pressures have been placed on families and businesses who have been forced to revaluate their finances and change the way they operate.

While in Tasmania we have walked away relatively unscathed compared to other states and countries, the recent second-wave and lockdowns in Victoria is a wake-up call to us all to stay vigilant.

I am sure many of you would agree that we do not want to return to the life we have lived the past three months confined to our homes.

As I look at the COVID-19 statistics around the world, I have never been so glad to live in Australia – particularly Tasmania - and have the backing of our private and public health systems behind us if something was to go horribly wrong.

Australia has recorded more than 10,000 confirmed cases of the virus and over 110 deaths, and yes – this is more than enough.

However, the global statistics updated daily on the Snug app by Johns Hopkins University and Medicine Coronavirus Resource Centre paint a stark picture elsewhere around the world.

As of July 20, there have been more than 3.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US with more than 140,000 deaths since recording started.  These deaths account for one fifth of the deaths recorded globally for the pandemic.

As a developed country, people ask how this could happen. Part of the answer lies in how the healthcare system is set up in the US.

The US does not have a universal health system, instead it relies solely on a risk-rated private health insurance system that prohibits many of the population seeking medical attention due to the high cost.

Those who are well off financially can afford healthcare while others are essentially left to fend for themselves.

A 2009 study in five states of the US found that medical debt contributed to more than 46 per cent of personal bankruptcy. Adding to this a 2013 study found 25 per cent of all senior citizens declared bankruptcy due to medical expenses.

By comparison, the UK has a state funded health system called the National Health Service, which guarantees care for all UK residents but also comes with its own flaws, particularly access.

Private Health Insurance still exists but it is a niche provider in stark contrast to the Australian system which meets the needs of 70 per cent of all elective surgery in the country. As a result, the UK hospital system is overburdened with a reliance on GPs to provide health services.

The Australia health system has a balanced approach, with both the private and public health sectors working in areas that complement each other and provide flexibility to deal with situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic when needed.
Australia was able to manage unwell people outside a hospital setting through a hybrid model, delivering care in the home while leveraging off technology to implement telehealth services.

Throughout COVID-19, the potential for the public and private health systems to collaborate and work more closely together has been evident and I hope once the pandemic passes we will continue to work together to better the health of all Tasmanians.

To enable public health teams to tackle COVID-19, private hospitals postponed non-urgent elective surgeries and managed a number of public patient critical surgeries to ensure that critical patients, whether private or public, could be seen to in their greatest hour of need and to ensure that personal protective equipment and resources were allocated to the areas of greatest need.

Locally in Tasmania, Calvary Healthcare in Launceston treated and operated on more than 350 public patients during the peak pandemic period in their private hospital setting, as the Launceston General Hospital managed COVID-19 patients from the North-West Coast outbreak, ensuring private resources were mobilised for the community good.

From a private health insurance perspective, to support our members’ health and financial wellbeing through the COVID-19 pandemic, St.LukesHealth has enacted several measures including:

  • Introducing nine telehealth services for a range of modalities, with a high uptake seen in the mental health space;
  • Our out-of-hospital care program to assist chronically ill members was converted to telehealth to ensure a continuity of support to members, which included a further outreach to additional vulnerable members over the COVID-19 shutdown period;
  • St.LukesHealth delayed the April 1 premium increases for six months, alleviating  some financial pressures for members; and
  • We ensured that members were aware of the hardship provisions available to them through mechanisms such as policy suspensions for a period until they can get back on their feet.

Whilst the disruption was not as deep as we initially envisaged, COVID-19 is forecast to cost St.LukesHealth in excess of $8 million in service costs, support and business impacts in the six-month period to the end of September.

It is pleasing to see the quick resumption of health services to members after the six-week service disruption period, with member claims for Hospital and Extras services having rebounded and accelerating with the lifting of restrictions.

I thank you for being a valued member of St.LukesHealth during this time and I thank Australia for having a combined public-private health system.

I know it has not been easy but as a collective we have all done incredibly well to ensure that we can continue to live a healthy and prosperous life.

Paul Lupo
St.LukesHealth CEO
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