A healthy tip for new migrants

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.

9 thoughts on “A healthy tip for new migrants

  1. jude says:

    As a nurse in CBR for nearly 40 yrs may I say that CBR is unusual in that it doesn’t really have the critical mass of private hospitals for private insurance to be worthwhile, the only exception being non-urgent elective surgery. The 2 public hospitals provide an otherwise excellent service. The private hospitals are small, limited, and woefully understaffed (profit over service), and I wouldn’t go near them except for a very basic short stay elective procedure. Bigger cities have excellent large private hospitals with a great range of services (and cutting edge techniques), but not Canberra. Our family has never suffered as a result of never having private insurance here. I hope that gives you a helpful ‘insider’ perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really does, Jude. Thank you. It’s so hard to know when people keep telling you that you must have something that you’ve never needed before. It makes you think that you are missing something in your research. I see signing up as ‘locking in’ the new migrant benefit while we do further digging. Plus I’m always suspicious when a government is so keen for you to do something. Thanks for the insight, it’s really welcome and helpful. Best, Mark


  2. Melanie Henrikson says:

    I agree with Jude. I would only use the private system for elective surgery, to reduce waiting time, and then I have chosen to save the money that I would have paid on insurance premiums and self fund.
    I have one child who has had several emergency admissions to Canberra hospital and I have been very happy with her care. Another child required urgent elective surgery, and on the surgeons advice we went privately. The hospital was small, old, understaffed and not a child specific environment. After Medicare rebate, I was out of pocket $3000, money well spent to avoid a potential two year wait.


    • Thanks Melanie. This is really great advice. I’ve always been a believer in public healthcare systems, but it’s hard to know the reality until you actually have to use them. As you say, a year or two’s premiums would quickly have amounted to $3,000 anyway. I certainly took that view of the ancillary benefits of private healthcare (dental etc) where they cap the cover anyway.
      Best, Mark


      • Melanie makes an excellent point. A not uncommon trick is to put the money you would otherwise spend on insurance into a separate account = self funding. Then you get to keep it if it isn’t needed. That beats the govt and the insurance companies at their own game!


      • Thanks both. I’m glad we locked in the option of the new migrant discount, but I’m already wondering if we will keep the insurance long-term. It sounds as though — as with many things — Canberra caters well for the whole community when it comes to healtcare provision.


  3. I was a firm believer in the public health system until I had to go through it. I too had to have my gall bladder removed, after a wait of over three months. The wait itself was not too bad with a modified and careful diet, a more debilitating condition would have been more difficult. The level of care I recieved in a large public hospital in Adelaide, however, was slightly alarming. I was mainly attended to by trainees in pre-op appointments and even had a ‘tour group’ of learners come to my beside post-op to view my scars. I understand the importance of giving our doctors and surgeons on-the-job experience, but I ended up feeling a bit like a lab rat. It isn’t lost on me that I’m in a privileged position to be able to afford private health insurance and that this goes against what I like to think are my generally more socialist ideology. One way that I offset the cost is to try and maximise the benefits I get from extras, ultimately preventing problems in the future e.g. regular dental check-ups, physio appointments when needed and, my favourite, remedial massages!


  4. Great tip! We’ve had small dealings with Medicare – while a wonderful service, it’s complex to say the least! I will definitely investigate the option of taking private healthcare out before the end of 12 months


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