HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [5.33 pm]: I rise because I want to re-raise an issue I have spoken on before. In September last year, I raised the issue of ambulance costs after I had been contacted by a constituent with disability who was being chased by debt collectors for failing to pay ambulance charges that he had incurred because he was unable to pay them. I highlighted that state governments decide whether to subsidise ambulance services and, in contrast to most other jurisdictions within Australia, the WA government takes what I think is a very problematic approach to ambulance costs. If someone in Western Australia calls an ambulance, they are likely to be left with a bill of close to $1 000. In most other states, pensioners and people on unemployment benefits, basically people who have healthcare cards, do not have to pay ambulance fees at all. The only Western Australians entitled to free ambulance services are people aged over 65 years and in receipt of an Australian government pension. At the time, I noted that although I had written to the Minister for Health, the minister, in fairness to him, had not had sufficient time to respond. Since that time the minister has responded, as he always does, acknowledging that some people in the community find meeting the cost of an ambulance service difficult. I think that is a bit of an understatement, particularly considering the constituents I have been dealing with. He went on to indicate that a procurement planning process to establish new service agreements for road-based transport arrangements was underway. That letter was dated 21 October 2019. As part of the procurement planning process, I know that the Department of Health has engaged the Health Consumers’ Council to undertake consumer consultation, including on the issue of costs. Of course, I welcome this move, and I understand that the outcomes of that consultation are now under consideration by the Department of Health.
The current service agreement with St John Ambulance expires on 30 June, and that date is rapidly approaching. Negotiation of a new service agreement presents a real opportunity for us to rethink the current model. On 19 February this year, I asked the minister whether the government would consider providing free ambulance services for people on concession cards to bring us consistent with the majority of other jurisdictions. I was very disappointed with the answer, which was —
The issue will be considered as part of the overall approach to funding ambulance services.
That gives no assurance whatsoever. I think having free ambulance services at the very least for people who have healthcare cards should become policy. Ambulances provide an essential and, very often, a lifesaving medical service, and access to essential medical services in Australia should not result in people being pursued by debt collectors. This is Australia, people, not America. In Queensland and Tasmania, ambulances are free for everyone, and our current model in WA disadvantages people who live in poverty. We already know that Australia has the dubious honour of being amongst a group of wealthy nations with above average levels of poverty. In fact, the recent report released by Australian Council of Social Service and the University of New South Wales found that more than one in eight people are living below the poverty line. This is a very serious issue and, in all seriousness, there is the potential for people to die if they feel they cannot call an ambulance or they will not call an ambulance because they are concerned about fees. Although some people might not call an ambulance because they know how expensive it is, so they will avoid it, others—that is nearly half of people according to a recent study—do not understand what it is going to cost and end up with a bill they have difficulty or no possibility of paying. That is a terrible position to put people in. Both these situations are clearly not okay. People should feel that they can call an ambulance in an emergency and should not be concerned about the cost when looking at potentially lifesaving intervention. They absolutely should not face financial hardship as a result. I urge the Minister for Health to take the opportunity of negotiation of the new service agreements that are occurring right now to address this important issue. I hope we will get some sort of government announcement around the budget to say this is something the government will be doing.