As a new migrant to Australia, there are some things that take longer than others to understand. And none, save pensions, seem more complex to me than the issue of healthcare and private health insurance.
I’d like to say that we’ve cracked it and that, below, you’ll find a short précis of all the things you’ll need to know as a new arrival in Canberra, but that’s far from the truth. But what I have cracked is a little tip that so important that I shudder to think that we may have missed it.
As a family who moved from Europe, we’ve had trouble understanding the healthcare system here in Australia. Here, ambulances aren’t a free service provided by the government and if you’re going to call one, you’d better have ambulance insurance or you run the risk of getting a hefty bill to dent your recuperation period.
Similarly, many doctors charge a fee for an appointment – enough to deter those ‘frequent flyers’ that may make frequent surgery visits in Europe, but also potentially high enough to make you put off a visit to discuss niggling symptoms of what may be a more serious condition.
Some doctors do a thing called ‘bulk billing’ which, as far as I understand it, means they only charge the same rate for appointments as the government will give them in subsidies. Those doctors don’t charge you, they just ‘bulk bill’ the government without you needing to worry about it. But others either don’t bulk bill – meaning you have to front up the appointment charge and then claim it back – or they charge more than the government will pay and so you have to claim back the government rebate but self-fund the difference.
Then there’s private healthcare, which we still don’t really understand.
“Ah but what if you need to go into hospital?” our friends ask us.
“But isn’t there a public healthcare system?” we ask back.
“Yes,” they say, “but you could wait years for a routine operation on the state. And you might even have to share a room.”
It’s hard to distil the scaremongering from the frivolous in all of that, especially as someone who was wowed by the Danish public healthcare system (I once needed my gall bladder removed. The consultant asked if I could come in the next day. I couldn’t. Then he offered me an appointment three weeks out but, after some checking of diaries, moved it forward a week so my stitches would be out in time for me to go swimming on holiday).
What I do know is that private health insurance is not cheap in Australia, and that’s a big deal when, newly arrived, you want to eke out your savings for as long as you can.
What I also know is that the Australian government really, really wants you to take it out. Here’s how their thinking goes – most people don’t want health insurance when they are young and healthy, but they might when they are older and sicker. But the system can’t make money like that, so they have a system whereby, for every year you wait after 30 to take out health insurance, they load your premium with an extra 2% so that, by the time you are 47 (as I am) your premiums are pretty punitive.
They want you to take it out, and they want you to take it out when you are young, and they’ll punish you for not doing it.
Except, except, except. Except the government realises that as a new migrant, you never had the opportunity to take out insurance at the age of 30, so, for the first 12 months after arrival, they’ll allow you to take our health insurance as if you were 30, with no loading of your premium (and, consequently, none thereafter either).
Here’s what we figured – if we take out the insurance now and decide it’s a bad idea after all, we can always cancel it. But if we don’t take it out now and later decide it’s a good idea, we’d never again be able to get the rates that are on offer to us now.
I still don’t know if it’s necessary. Politically, the idea of better healthcare for those who can afford it sits ill with me, but at least we’ve secured the best deal while I make that decision. Which is why that little 12-month window of opportunity is such an important little detail, and one that we found out about purely by chance.
Next on the list is the pensions thing.
With perfect timing, last week, Canberra Your Future tweeted a link to a PDF brochure all about the health system in Canberra. It’s really very informative and is worth a few minutes of your time.