There is increasing debate in the media about the pros and cons of Private Health Cover. Opinions about private health cover are changing, and tax benefits are part of the decision.
According to Consumer watchdog, Choice, the base level of private health cover required to be exempt from the Medicare Levy Surcharge has been nicknamed ‘Junk’ because those cheap plans cover few treatments – leaving you out of pocket for basic health services. You avoid extra tax and surcharges, but it covers only a handful of treatments and limited cover for an accident.
Responding to growing consumer debate, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) called for standardisation of policies across providers.
At the other end of the spectrum, some experts suggest a better solution to the complex overlap of Medicare and private health cover would be the option to opt out of Medicare all together.
Tom Godfrey, from Choice, pointed out cumulative price increases of 35% since 2009, reducing the accessibility and appeal of private plans.
Complicated policies, hidden or unknown out of pocket fees and complicated jargon has also made it almost impossible for consumers to clearly understand what their health plans actually cover. Quite often, when it comes to the crunch, some policy holders find it’s easier and cheaper to simply use the public system than to use their insurance.
Unfortunately, private health cover has become a labyrinth of confusion that won’t improve in the near future.
Why is Etax writing about health cover?
There are many arguments for and against private health cover. But the one thing most people can agree on is, paying for private hospital cover will save most Australians some tax money.
We decided we’d look a little deeper, to see whether it is actually an effective way of saving tax and to clear up some common questions.
Let’s starts with a few basics:
What is private health cover?
There are two types of private health cover
- Hospital – to help when you need to go to hospital. This covers you for doctors, treatments, overnights rooms and theatre costs.
- General (usually known as extras) – to help with ancillary treatments such as optical and dental care plus some alternative or allied health services like physio and massage.
Most policies are sold with a mix of hospital and extras cover.
According to APRA, in 2017 45.6% of Australians had private health cover.
Why do we have private health cover when we could use Medicare?
Private health cover eases the burden on our underfunded public health system. Private health cover is perceived to provide policyholders with:
- the ability to choose the hospital and the date of medical treatments and operations,
- better quality of care with private room options,
- access to special services like private rooms or nicer maternity wards,
- shorter wait times,
- a sense of security, should the worst happen,
- a good way to pay less tax. (see below)
Does private cover work?
Yes. For many Australians, private health cover makes good sense. A more comprehensive or higher level policy looks after your family and provides the security that our families will be looked after, quickly, when its needed.
However, a growing reality is that many policyholders, especially those on low or mid level incomes, are becoming disillusioned and are dropping out of private cover.
Why are some people quitting their private health cover?
Over the 6 months leading up to November last year, half a million Australians either downgraded or canceled their private health policies. According to a Galaxy poll, another half a million threatened to do the same in the lead up to the annual price increase this April.
News coverage suggests the key reasons for this exodus away from private health is due to:
- The cost. Annual fee increases, far above CPI, limit the accessibility of better-quality private polices.
- With many policies, there is a dollar gap that you pay out of pocket; it’s the difference between the amount charged by the medical specialist or hospital and the lower amount paid by the policy. With expensive plans this gap can be tiny but with common, cheaper plans the gap looks more like a chasm, leaving some lower-income patients with unexpected bills.
- Confusing policies that are difficult to understand and even harder to compare mean people sometimes don’t get the cover they expected, but don’t realise until it’s too late.
What’s the alternative to private health cover?
Medicare, our public system which looks after all Australians and Australian residents.
- Popular opinion is that quality of care in our public hospitals more often than not, rivals that of private hospitals.
- Public hospitals often have a broader spectrum of equipment and specialists in each location, which means that patients can undergo multiple tests, scans and procedures in one place.
- Many procedures and operations require no out of pocket expenses from the patient.
- Waiting times can be long. This can be real issue for people waiting for operations such a knee or hip operations where quality of life is severely diminished.
- You have no choice when it comes to when or where your treatment, consultations or operations are. If you are unable to make a date sent to you, you are often put to the bottom of the list again.
- Under-funding is often evident in understaffed, overcrowded waiting rooms once your appointment date does finally come around. This can commonly result is a 2-4 hour wait.
- Medicare does not cover general care, such as dental treatment or optometry.
Medicare is funded by government revenue and via the compulsory Medicare Levy that most Australians pay to the ATO. The Medicare Levy currently takes 2% of our annual income.
Higher income earners are ‘encouraged’ to take out private hospital cover in order to ease the burden on the public system.
Medicare Levy Surcharge: This is how private health cover can create tax savings
People earning $90,000 or more ($180,000 or above for families) are also required to pay an additional 1-1.5% of their annual income to the government. This is called the Medicare Levy Surcharge.
Medicare Levy Surcharge rates (sourced from the ATO)
* The family income threshold increases by $1,500 for each Medicare levy surcharge dependent child after the first child.
Example: How John’s private health cover saves him money at tax time
John is 29, lives in Queensland and earns $110,000 a year. John’s income puts him over the $90,000 threshold so, without private hospital cover, he’ll pay 1.25% of his taxable income to the Medicare Levy Surcharge (MLS). This equals $1,375 a year.
Instead John chose a typical QLD private hospital cover plan costing $1,250 for young singles like him. John is also eligible for the Australian Government Private Health Insurance Rebate (8.93% of his hospital cover). Because John has private hospital cover, he does not have to pay the Medicare Levy Surcharge.
- Without hospital cover, John will pay the Medicare Levy Surcharge at $1375 per year
- With basic hospital cover, John pays $1,138 after the Private Health Rebate
- With hospital cover, John’s annual tax saving is about $237
(NOTE: Only private hospital cover creates an exemption from the Medicare Levy Surcharge. Extras does not affect your tax situation, so that cost is all paid by you. The average cost for hospital plus extras cover in QLD $1,831. See below for average costs across Australia.)
The big question for Australians:
“If private health cover won’t take care of my common medical needs, is it better than paying into a public medical system that does?”
You simply need to do the sums (or ask a tax agent for help), think about what you can afford, think about how much you value the benefits of private health over public, and make a decision that fits you best.
If you make a good income, you can afford a high-level private plan with low gap costs and you personally value the benefits and services that are covered (or you value the sense of security in expecting shorter wait times and access to private hospitals with minimal out of pocket in the event of a crisis)… then maybe a comprehensive private plan makes sense for you. But as a higher income earner, you probably won’t see a tax advantage (and Federal Government rumours suggest that private health tax advantages might disappear completely for higher income earners).
If you make a lower or average income and, when you do the sums, a private hospital plan means a bigger tax refund for you, and if your private cover won’t change your own decisions and spending to leave you out of pocket, then “yes” to private cover might be a “no-brainer”.
On the other hand, if you buy basic private hospital cover just to avoid paying a bit of tax, but end up using more expensive services and pay a big out-of-pocket gap each time, that might put you behind financially.
This does not mean that you should ignore private health cover. It simply means that IF you choose the private health cover option, it makes far more sense to purchase a policy that actually looks after you when you need it to.
Your decision about private health is complicated. You need to decide for yourself how important each of these things are to you personally: The not-insignificant financial costs and the possible tax gain, access to private facilities and services, access to better services if you need maternity or other special services, more worry-free care in emergencies (if you have a good plan), and how much you value (and will actually use) extras if you decide to pay for that… a lot for each person to consider.
When choosing your private health cover option, we suggest it’s good to take your time. Concentrate on getting yourself and your family an affordable policy that provides everything that you need (and not including items you don’t need, eg. retirees don’t need maternity services).
- Read (lots) so you really understand what you need.
- Talk to friends, family and work colleagues.
- Ask health professionals for advice, where possible.
- Ask private health cover providers plenty of questions and never worry about asking too many. Tell them what you need and also what you don’t want to pay for.
- Use a checklist to make sure you don’t miss anything out when making your decision.
During our research, we came across some great websites to help you make your private health cover decision:
PrivateHealth.gov.au: Health Insurance Explained
Guardian: Interactive health insurance calculator
ATO: Medicare Levy
PrivateHealth.gov.au: Lifetime Health Cover Loading calculator
Choice: Health Cover Checklist
Choice: Hints and Tips
Canstar: Average costs for health cover
Guardian: Reader Reviews