By Aleksandra Bliszczyk
A SHORTAGE of general practitioners across the Mitchell and Macedon Ranges shires will now be the subject of a senate inquiry.
Following a nationwide campaign by Labor MPs, an inquiry into the provision of GPs to outer metropolitan, rural, and regional Australians was called last week and is now open for submissions, with a final report expected to be handed down next year.
Federal Member for McEwen Rob Mitchell backed Labor’s calls for the inquiry after making pleas to the government to address the growing problem.
“I have desperately lobbied the Morrison Government to no avail,” Mr Mitchell said.
“We deserve to have timely access to affordable healthcare to support our physical, mental and social wellbeing.”
Mr Mitchell said the government had not only failed to act on the issue, but had exacerbated the shortage by reclassifying areas like Wallan from rural to metropolitan, known as a non-distribution priority area, restricting the eligibility criteria for doctors to practise and therefore disincentivising GPs to travel to the region.
“A lack of doctors and other medical professionals in regional and rural communities across Australia is not a new problem, but a series of government decisions and the pandemic means it really is time to spotlight this critical issue before people are left with no healthcare options in their community,” he said.
“There simply aren’t enough doctors in our towns to look after the needs of our community and this is leading to people not being able to book appointments when they need them most.”
The proposed inquiry will explore the GP crisis in outer metropolitan, rural, and regional areas nationwide, including an assessment of policies such as the Rural Health Strategy, reforms to distribution priority areas and the Modified Monash Model geographical classification system.
It would also consider GP training reforms and the impact of a Medicare rebate freeze, which was initially installed temporarily following the global financial crisis, but then extended when the Coalition was elected in 2014.
“Labor wants the inquiry to seek practical positive solutions to make sure Australians have access to quality health care regardless of where they live,” Mr Mitchell said.
“Labor will be seeking support from crossbench and National Party Senators to establish this important inquiry.”
Mr Mitchell wrote to Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt in May relaying the experiences of many people from across his electorate who had shared concerns about long waits to see a doctor or being referred out of the area to get timely medical help.
“People here in McEwen know through bitter experience that access to timely medical help has been getting worse and worse, and the pandemic has just exacerbated the problem,” he said.
“But Mr Hunt rejects our pleas, claiming data says we have better healthcare access than we apparently realise.”
At the time the Department of Health told the Review Wallan had been assessed as having 10 per cent above the benchmark for of healthcare access, which has been set by looking across Australian communities.
“This means there are many other communities with lower access to health services, compared with Wallan, and overseas trained doctors are currently prioritised to those other communities,” a department spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said the government was addressing the nationwide rural doctor shortage by investing significantly in better access to health services through the Stronger Rural Health Strategy, SRHS.
“While the government does not play a direct role in employing health professionals, it funds a range of programs to recruit and retain health professionals in rural Australia and improve access to health services for regional, rural and remote communities,” they said.
Mr Mitchell said he was ‘gobsmacked’ by Wallan’s renewed non-DPA classification.
“The Federal Health Minister’s answer to our pleas is to tell us that we should feel lucky, compared to other communities which have lower access to healthcare services,” he said.
“To me, that’s a smack in the face to everyone in our community having trouble getting to see a doctor.
“A Senate inquiry will certainly help put the facts on the table.”
Submissions can be lodged via www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/PrimaryHealthServices.