HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [9.55 pm]: I rise because I want to talk about a matter that was recently brought to my attention by a constituent. This constituent is currently being chased by debt collectors for failing to pay for ambulance charges that he has incurred, and his instance serves to highlight a problematic policy position that the state may want to consider rectifying. My constituent lives on a disability support pension and what has happened to him highlights a broader concern for income support recipients within Western Australia. One of the things that I am conscious of is that if this constituent lived in any other state, with the exception of South Australia, he would not be in the position that he is now because the ambulance service that he required would have been free. It is clear that Western Australian income support recipients are at a distinct disadvantage compared with the situation in the rest of Australia.
I have already written to the Minister for Health about this issue and asked whether consideration has been given to amending the fees and charges for pensioners and income support recipients to bring WA in line with the rest of the country. I want to make it clear that the minister has not yet had, in my opinion, sufficient time or opportunity to respond to the letter. I am not having a go at the health minister at this point because he may well be considering this. I do not yet know whether this is an issue that the government is committed to doing anything about, but I think that this is a really important issue that affects some of the more vulnerable members of our community. I want to make sure it is on the record, in particular the concerns that I and the Greens have about this.
We do not have a nationally consistent approach to the delivery of ambulance services. In Western Australia, as we know, WA Health contracts the private provider St John Ambulance to deliver these services. I note that a key recommendation from an inquiry into St John, which was undertaken back in 2009, was that this arrangement should continue. We know that our ambulance service relies on a mixture of paid paramedics and extensive volunteer crews. Metropolitan depots are fully staffed by both paramedic and transport officer crews. Larger country sub-centres have a mix of paid and volunteer staff, and more than 100 country sub-centres are wholly reliant on volunteers. Compared with the cost per person in other states, WA has the least expensive ambulance service in Australia, but we also operate on a user-pays system. We are not talking about cheap costs here. Ambulance fees can range from $482 for a patient transfer vehicle through to $986, and that is even if it is a life-threatening or urgent callout. Unfortunately, this cost is not covered by Medicare, the Health Care Card, or pharmaceutical or pensioner benefit cards. The only people who are currently entitled to free ambulance services are Western Australians who are over the age of 65 and are in receipt of an Australian government pension. People on a disability pension, a sole parent or carer pension, or any other Centrelink pension, may be entitled to a 50 per cent discount on their ambulance account only. Health Care Card holders are not entitled to any discount or concession. I have to say that even with a 50 per cent discount, the cost for a pensioner is absolutely prohibitive. A person who receives an unexpected bill of around $500 will find that absolutely unaffordable.
To make matters worse, my constituent advised that debt collection proceedings were commenced against him after only three weeks of not being able to pay that account. I have to ask: what will this possibly achieve? We are essentially placing further financial and emotional burdens on people whose circumstances are beyond their control. I think all of us in this place would understand that disability pensioners already face enough challenges, without imposing another challenge on them for accessing what I would argue should be an essential service within our health system.
Further, people are often not aware that they will be charged for an ambulance service. I note that one survey found that 25 per cent of Australians wrongly believe that ambulance services are covered by Medicare. Therefore, it would be a great shock to them to receive a hefty bill for ambulance services. Each state approaches the provision of ambulance services in different ways. Therefore, it is completely understandable that users of ambulance services do not necessarily know the financial implications of calling an ambulance. The Queensland and Tasmanian governments provide free emergency ambulance services so long as the person is a resident of that state. In New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and the Northern Territory, pensioner concession card and Health Care Card holders are given access to free ambulance services. Therefore, it is no surprise that people are confused about their entitlement to free ambulance services. No matter what arrangement may exist in any state, no person who is facing a life-threatening emergency should be hesitant about calling for help because they are worried that they may not be able to afford an ambulance service. That is the worst possible situation to present to people.
It is time Western Australia was brought into line with the remainder of the country and ambulance services were made, at the very least, free to pensioners and Health Care Card holders. I look forward to receiving the Minister for Health’s response in due course. As I have said, I have only just written to the minister, so I have not been waiting for an undue amount of time to receive that response. That is something we need to look at. In the meantime, it is appalling that my constituent, who has a disability, has been faced with this unacceptable debt. It is extraordinarily disappointing that he is being pursued by debt collectors in this way.