Horizontal inequities in Australia's mixed public/private health care system
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Recent comparative evidence from OECD countries suggests that Australia's mixed public–private health system does a good job in ensuring high and fairly equal access to doctor, hospital and dental care services. This paper provides some further analysis of the same data from the Australian National Health Survey for 2001 to examine whether the general finding of horizontal equity remains when the full potential of the data is realized. We extend the common core cross-country comparative analysis by expanding the set of indicators used in the procedure of standardizing for health care need differences, by providing a separate analysis for the use for general practitioner and specialist care and by differentiating between admissions as public and private patients. Overall, our analysis confirms that in 2001 Medicare largely did seem to be attaining an equitable distribution of health care access: Australians in need of care did get to see a doctor and to be admitted to a hospital. However, they were not equally likely to see the same doctor and to end up in the same hospital bed. As in other OECD countries, higher income Australians are more likely to consult a specialist, all else equal, while lower income patients are more likely to consult a general practitioner. The unequal distribution of private health insurance coverage by income contributes to the phenomenon that the better-off and the less well-off do not receive the same mix of services. There is a risk that – as in some other OECD countries – the principle of equal access for equal need may be further compromised by the future expansion of the private sector in secondary care services. To the extent that such inequalities in use may translate in inequalities in health outcomes, there may be some reason for concern.