Medical Services in Australia

Like many others, Australia’s health care system is somewhat of a hybrid system. Like the UK, health care is provided by both the state and private enterprises. For expats, navigating this system can be challenging, but there are ways to find affordable healthcare in Australia. This means it’s funded by the state and Medicare health insurance (taxpayer subsidy). Not-for-profit organisations also have their influence in the industry.

Thus, the experience of the recipient can be either strictly public or private. The idea underpinning it is that healthcare should be accessible to all, no matter the circumstances, and this is a civilised society feature.

Essentially, Medicare provides payments for your healthcare, so you either get them for free or at a very cheap cost. Medicare is available to Australian citizens and permanent visa holders — and you must register and complete some admin, which takes around a week. If you’re visiting only on a holiday visa, arranging healthcare insurance before entering the country would be advisable. If you’re eligible for Medicare, here are a few medical costs it covers. You can find more information here if you’re an expat looking to register with a doctor or dentist in Australia.

The only exception in which you’re eligible for Medicare despite being on a temporary visa is if you’re a citizen of a country from the following:

  • Belgium
  • Finland
  • Italy
  • Malta
  • New Zealand
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Republic of Ireland
  • Slovenia
  • Sweden
  • UK

Just because private hospitals are private, they aren’t automatically better. It can sometimes mean that waiting lists are shorter, but overall public hospitals offer a wider variety of “services”. Australian health care is considered to be very good and upholds a high standard. There is an issue, however, of distribution. Given the country’s large mass, health care isn’t necessarily evenly distributed, meaning that some areas will receive inferior health care. Generally, the major metropolises have the best infrastructure, with suburbs and, finally, rural areas having fewer resources.

The costs of healthcare under Medicare

Australian taxpayers pay 1.5% of their income to Medicare, whilst higher earners pay 2.5%.  The rest is “funded by the government” (though it’s clear that this money comes from taxpayers still). This Medicare Levy essentially funds public health care and subsidises private health care. Thus, 100% of costs are covered in state-funded hospitals and 75% of the costs of GP chargers.

For private health care, you will essentially be covered for the cost as if it were a public service. So, the Government pays out the same whether you’re using private or public. Of course, private healthcare services will be more than this amount, so it’s up to you to pay the rest. This could be half of the funding, but it differs depending on the treatment/services.

You can get private medical insurance instead of paying for the excess yourself when using private health care. This will work just like any other insurance, in which monthly/annual premiums will result in coverage by the insurer.

Around 57% of Australians have private health care insurance, which is likely a reflection of not wanting the longer waiting times of public hospitals in case of needing immediate treatment. It should be noted that Medicare does not cover ambulance costs, dentistry, or optometry.

How did the Australian Healthcare system deal with the COVID-19 pandemic?

The Department of Health had actually published its Management Plan for a Pandemic Influenza in August 2019 — fortuitous timing. As Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. At that point, Australian hospitals were not overwhelmed with patients, unlike in Italy. This was because they didn’t have as many cases. Given the expectation that we were all going to experience an outbreak similar to Italy’s, Australian hospitals were “preparing for war”.

Social distancing measures taken by the government meant that there was a quiet period. But it was believed to be the calm before the storm, so to speak unless Australia’s social distancing was a lot more effective than Europe’s and North America’s.

The advantage that Australia had, though, that Italy and Spain were not afforded with, was time. Unlike these two (and others), Australia had been given a significant heads-up on what could happen. This meant they were converting places into hospitals before they were needed. Given that the virus spread more quickly in dense cities, the metropolitan hospitals prepared the hardest.