Healthcare in Australia: A guide to the Australian healthcare system

09.11.17
6 minute read
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Moving to Australia has always been a popular option for many, and it’s easy to see why. It’s not just a paradise for tourists, but also a country that takes care of its citizens. Healthcare is always an important consideration when moving abroad, so take a look at our guide to the Australian healthcare system to make sure you know what it involves.

Quick facts on the healthcare system in Australia

  • Public, private or universal healthcare: a universal public system, with private options available.
  • Population % covered by health insurance: 100% of permanent residents have Medicare, the public healthcare system. Around 50% additionally have private insurance.
  • Average cost of an emergency room visit: free through Medicare.
  • Average cost of a doctor’s visit: free through Medicare.
  • Average cost of public health insurance for 1 person: 2% of income, taken through tax.
  • Average cost of private health insurance for 1 person: around $2,000 per year.
  • Number of pharmacies: over 5,000.
  • Number of hospitals: approximately 1,300 - 700 public, 600 private.

Being exact about what your home currency is worth in terms of Australian dollars is always hard, as the global exchange market is constantly changing. Try an online currency converter for the latest rates. At the time of writing, the Australian dollar is worth approximately this much:

  • AU$1,000 = £617
  • AU$1,000 = €670
  • AU$1,000 = US$790

Average cost of healthcare in Australia

Is healthcare free in Australia?

If you’re a permanent Australian resident public healthcare is paid for through tax: you’ll probably pay 2% of your income to the ‘Medicare levy’, which funds the public system. This means that you either don’t ever face medical fees at all, or that you can claim most of them back from the state. So healthcare isn’t really free, but most necessary treatment shouldn’t leave you out of pocket.

While private healthcare also isn’t free there are various government schemes in place to encourage people who can afford it to take out private insurance. Private plans can therefore end up proving a sensible investment.

To make sure you have enough money to cover medical costs in Australia, TransferWise can help you avoid the bank fees you might otherwise have to pay. TransferWise always uses the real exchange rate that you’ll find on Google or XE and only charges a small upfront fee, so it could save you a lot. And with a Borderless multi-currency account, you can even hold money in Australian dollars while you move there and get set up in the country, meaning that you don’t have to worry about changes in international exchange rates.

The Australian medical system: Public, private, universal, national, state, single payer - which is it?

Australia boasts universal public healthcare. All permanent Australian residents have access to Medicare, the state health care provider, and this is paid for through taxes: nobody has to worry about soaring monthly premiums.

However, the government is active in trying to persuade anyone who earns enough to take out private policies on top of their state coverage to relieve pressure on the public system. High earners face an extra tax unless they take out private insurance, and costs for private insurance rise incrementally once you hit 30, meaning it may be in your financial interest to take it out while you’re young.

If you’re on a temporary visa, you might not be eligible for Medicare. Check the official Medicare site to see if you are. Australia has a number of reciprocal healthcare agreements in place with other countries around the world. So, even if you’re on a temporary visa, if you’re from the UK, Ireland or New Zealand - for instance - you might still be entitled to coverage.

Medicare: the Australian state healthcare system

Medicare offers quite thorough basic healthcare coverage including GP costs, hospital costs and 85% of specialist costs. There are heavy discounts on prescription drug prices and plenty of other benefits. Often, Medicare is billed directly through a system called ‘bulk billing’, meaning that you’ll never see the bill yourself. If this doesn’t happen, you’ll need to pay yourself and then file a claim later.

The Australian private healthcare system

A high proportion of the population - around 50% - has private insurance. For most, this is in addition to Medicare. There are three basic types of private insurance: hospital insurance, ‘extras’ and ambulance insurance.

Hospital insurance covers you in private hospitals, with private doctors. Extras include things like glasses and dental costs. Ambulance insurance is exactly what it sounds like - emergency vehicles aren’t covered by Medicare, although some state governments do pay for this. If your state doesn’t pay for ambulances, it might be worth looking into this.

Signing up for the healthcare system in Australia

Signing up for Medicare isn’t complicated: use the official Medicare site to check your eligibility and begin the application process.

If you want or need private insurance, either instead of or as well as Medicare, then the place to go is the government’s private health insurance ombudsman. Their website can give you full information and also has a comparison tool so that you can look at the various policies on offer.

Hospitals in Australia

There are almost as many private hospitals in Australia as there are public ones, so make sure you know which one you’ll want to go to in case of emergency. If you have private insurance, you're still allowed to go and be treated in public facilities if you prefer. Do check with your private insurance policy about exactly what’s covered and what isn’t.

If you’re in the public system, most fees are covered by Medicare, with the major exception of ambulance fees, as already mentioned.

Doctors and specialists in Australia

Finding a GP / family doctor in Australia

It’s always good to have a doctor you can trust, and that’s no different in Australia. Search for a GP near you and pay the practice a visit. There are a few things worth checking before you sign up, such as opening hours and whether or not they ‘bulk-bill’ or bill Medicare directly.

Waiting times to see your GP vary quite a lot, and may be something else to ask about before choosing. In rural areas it can take around 6 days before you can see your GP, while in cities it can be around 3. So always make sure you call in advance.

Specialists in Australia

If you’re using Medicare and want to see a specialist about a particular issue, you’ll need a GP referral. In the private system, you might be able to go there directly. Be prepared to face long waiting times under Medicare - it could even be years.

Health insurance in Australia: Costs and plans

Our guide to Australian health insurance offers a more thorough rundown of the costs and options that are available to you. The key question for new arrivals in Australia is whether or not you’re eligible for Medicare. If you are, then do be sure to sign up.

If you’re not allowed onto Medicare, which is a possibility on a temporary visa, then take a close look at the private insurance options available. They vary widely in cost but an average policy for an individual comes in at around $2,000 each year. International students aren’t on Medicare but will need Overseas Student Health Cover - read up on this at Study in Australia.

Private insurance can be an attractive option even if you're covered by Medicare. Partially this is because of the tax incentives the government offers, but partially it’s to relieve pressure on the public system - and avail yourself of the shorter waiting times and easier access to specialist care.

Temporary health insurance for tourists

If you’re just visiting for a short time, don’t forget to arrange travel insurance. You might even need to show evidence of this as part of your visa application. There are a near infinite number of policies out there, and don’t forget to check what you’re already covered for under your health insurance policy at home - especially as your country might have a reciprocal agreement in place with Australia. But a look at comparison sites such as Comparethemarket or MoneySupermarket might be the best place to start.

Useful links

Australian healthcare is a complex system. It definitely pays to understand it, but with luck, you’ll be able to find the perfect sort of healthcare coverage for you.

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