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What is the role of public hospitals?

29 September 2010

We are likely to see some changes to the way the public health system is funded as a result of the election, with major reforms proposed. However, as it stands today, the following is how the public health system in Australia currently operates.

Public hospitals are administered by the State governments. They provide treatment free of charge to citizens and permanent residents.

There are 760 public hospitals across Australia providing more than 50,000 beds. Every public acute hospital is different. They vary in size, in their range of services, their degree of specialisation, and the extent to which they engage in teaching and research.

If a patient has private health insurance and needs to be admitted to a public hospital he or she should be given the choice to be treated either as a public patient or as a private patient. If a patient chooses to be treated as a public patient, he or she will receive, free of charge, all their medical, allied health and pharmaceutical care. However, the patient cannot choose their own doctor or ask for a private room.

If the patient chooses to be treated as a private patient in a public hospital, he or she will be charged for their care by both the hospital and any treating doctors. Private health insurance may cover most of the charges, depending on the patient’s level of cover.

As well as private patients, there are other categories of patients treated in public hospitals. For example, if the patient is an eligible veteran or a veteran’s dependant, their treatment costs will be met by the Australian Government Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Other examples include defence force personnel, people eligible for compensation and overseas residents not eligible for Medicare cover.

The provision of an MBS number does not mean that the procedure will be available in the public hospital system. Likewise, there are some procedures (usually highly specialised and affecting only a small number of patients) which do not have an MBS number but are performed in the public hospital system.

As the administration of the public hospitals is by State, the availability of particular procedures in the public hospital system can vary between each State.

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