For more than two decades, Russell Schneider was the public face of the private health insurance industry. As the former CEO of the Australian Health Insurance Association, he was a tireless advocate for his industry.

He was also effective, as evidenced by the fact that some billions of public dollars are now spent each year propping up a private industry which is not exactly known for its efficiency.

This uncapped public subsidy of private health insurance is widely judged to have been inequitable and to have had many negative consequences for the public health sector (John Menadue, Chair of the Centre for Policy Development, has written about some of these here.)

So it was with some surprise that I saw Schneider’s name among the recipients of Australia Day honours, whose stated aim is to recognise “excellence, achievement and service by members of the community to Australia and humanity at large”. Schneider’s citation reads:

For service to the private health insurance industry through a range of advisory roles, and to the health care system as a contributor to the development and implementation of national policy.

There is no doubt that Schneider achieved much on behalf of his industry. Presumably he was also well paid for doing this. But there is plenty of doubt as to whether his industry’s gain has been in the public interest.

No doubt many will think it poor taste to question the merits of a particular recipient. But the point is not to deride Mr Schneider personally. After all, he was just doing his job.

The point is to question the merits of the awards themselves. Particularly when I know of a few outstanding figures in public health whose achievements are internationally recognised by their peers, but whose nominations for an Australia Day honour have been rejected. Particularly when I can think of many health professionals, especially those in the bush, whose work for their communities is unlikely to ever attract such recognition, simply because they are not part of the networks of influence which know how to work the awards system.

I’m not the only one who reacted to news of Schneider’s award.

Menadue had this to say:

The Government subsidies of $6 billion per annum for private health insurance under Russell Schneider’s leadership is pushing Australian health care down a two tier track and has promoted queue jumping in the provision of health services. The wealthy get priority.

Ian McAuley, an associate of Menadue’s at the Centre for Policy Development, adds:

Australia Day honours are really for those who have contributed to the community. Schneider has contributed to his industry but that has tended to undermine community values because it has encouraged Australians to opt out of sharing their health care with others.

Dr Lesley Russell, of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the University of Sydney, is similarly sceptical:

This is a guy who was extraordinarily successful in working for his constituency … and he earnt every single dollar he was paid. Does he deserve a gong? I am not sure what he did that contributed to society’s welfare.

The winners and losers in this little story seem pretty clear: an industry and its lobbyist have come up trumps while the awards’ credibility is under question. David Marr, who recently raised concerns about the selection process, is not alone in hoping for an overhaul.

For the record, retirement has not dimmed Schneider’s passion for the private health industry. He is writing a book, The Medicare Conspiracy, which he says will examine efforts to diminish the private health sector.

He told Crikey that the two million low income Australians with private health insurance will think his award is well deserved, and stresses that his achievements benefitted the private health sector overall.

Asked about health economists’ concerns that the private health insurance incentives have been inflationary, he didn’t hold back.

“Health economists are dopes,” he said. “I’ve yet to meet any of them who are rational. Most of them are extreme left wing ideologues. If they were any good, they’d be in the private sector. All they can do is get jobs in the universities.”

So there.

Peter Fray

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