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A visit from down under
Australian exchange Rotary members visit Rockdale, Newton
(Left to Right) exchange members David Gulland, Sarah Farrell, Ray Swincicky, and Rockdale Rotarians Ronnie Brown and club president David Cooper - photo by William Brawley

 While Australians can provide different views on many aspects of life, local Rotarians were most interested Tuesday in the country's government-funded health care.

Five Australian professionals are visiting Conyers and Covington - and some American counterparts are in Australia- as part of the Rotary Foundation's Group Study Exchange program, which is designed to allow young professionals to better understand how their vocation is practiced in a foreign country.

Three of the professionals spoke to the Covington's Rotary Club Thursday and to the Rockdale Rotary Club on Wednesday morning, but the majority of questions were posed to David Gulland, a 28-year-old pharmacist with a private, not-for-profit Catholic hospital in western Australia.

Gulland said Australia has had government-funded health care since the 1980s and said the county spent $121.4 billion on healthcare, 9.4 percent of country's gross domestic product, in the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

While any citizen and nearly all tourists has access to free health care, regardless of costs, Gulland said people with non-emergency cases can be put on a waiting list for up to a year in some areas of the country. As a result, an estimated 66 percent of Australians also have some form of private insurance, which allows patients to jump waiting lists. Gulland's hospital is private.

Gulland said he's come to the U.S. in part to study the current system as well as the changes that will take place when Obamacare goes into affect.

The government incentivizes private health insurance by allowing people with insurance to save 1.5 percent on their annual tax return.

Another aspect of the country's health insurance is its pharmaceutical benefits package, which allows residents to get medications at a subsidize rate.

If a resident is older than 65 or a low-income earner he will pay only $5.80 for a drug and the government picks up the rest, while regular earners will pay a maximum of $35.40. If the drug is cheaper, the patient will pay less.

There are a handful of medications that private insurance will have to cover or a person will pay for personally.

In addition, the county is looking to subsidize dental health insurance, which is becoming a health issue and is also exploring a disability care program.

"Australians are very proud of their health care model. It's truly universal and a national treasure. And Australians would be loathe to give it up now that we've got it," Gulland said.

Naturally, local residents were curious about both the cost of private insurance as well as the amount of taxes paid. Gulland said his wife and he have the top coverage on both sides and pay about $3,000 a year. If he goes into a hospital he doesn't pay at all.

On the questions of income taxes, he said people probably pay an average of 25 percent.

He was also asked if doctors were paid different reimbursements from the government versus private insurance.

"The only people who make money in our system are doctors to be honest with you. The reason we have a private system is that doctors want to make money," Gulland said.

"Doctors still make money, so don't be concerned. But nurses and pharmacists and everyone else doesn't make any money. We're poor," he said and laughed.

Sarah Farrell, a 31-year-old social worker, also spoke to the group about her efforts working in the remote Kimberly region in the northern part of western Australia, working with several communities including indigenous people. She's also help set up a mental health system and works in community building.

She said her role requires flexibility as she can be found in a plane flying to a particularly remote part, working with clients beneath a tree or at their home.

"It's a role that requires flexibility and adaptability," Farrell said, noting there is only one paved road going through the entirety of the Kimberly region.

Also on the trip are Katie McKenzie, a 26-year-old energy regulation commercial lawyer, who specializes in carbon taxes and related issues, Tania Hawkins, a trainer and technical writer who works in information technology, and Ray Swincicky, the team leader and a member of the exchange committee at his local Rotary Club in Australia.

The professionals are spending their time visiting fellow American professionals in the workplace, making club presentations, visiting cultural spots and attending some social events.