ACT Health, Canberra is seeking to recover millions of dollars in debt from former patients both within Australia and across the world who were ineligible for free healthcare. Non-eligible patient debt has blown out from $1.4 million in 2012 to $6.6 million in 2017.
An ACT government spokesman said all debts will first flow through the internal Debt Recovery process before being sent on to an external debt recovery agency. There would be safeguards in place to ensure vulnerable people were not harrassed by debt collectors. There are grounds for compassionate exemptions, assessed on a case by case basis, the spokesman said.
Visitors from countries with Reciprocal Health Care agreements with Australia can access free public hospital treatment. Students from Norway, Finland, Malta and the Republic of Ireland are among those not covered by the agreements.
Health Care Consumers’ Association of the ACT executive director Darlene Cox said the $6 million debt was a relatively small proportion of the $1.6 billion health budget. “Health care isn’t free, we pay for it through our taxes and if people here aren’t able to contribute the way others do, it means bearing cost of their care,” Ms Cox said. However if the government chose to recover the unpaid money, she believed debt collection should not be done with a “heavy handed approach”.
President of the ACT branch of the Australian Medical Association Professor Steve Robson said there was a difference between deliberately not paying back debt, poor organisation, and the poor person who is a victim of the system. He hoped the government would be wary about how this is done and that debt collection would be carried out in a “compassionate” way.