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Wednesday, 18 February 2004
Page: 25173

Ms BURKE (7:21 PM) —I rise too to make a contribution to the debate on Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2003-2004, Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2003-2004 and Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill (No. 2) 2003-2004. In particular, I want to talk about the terrible toll the government's health and higher education priorities are having on my community. In Chisholm, the percentage of services bulk-billed by GPs fell by more than 10 per cent from December 2000 to September 2003, tumbling from 82.4 per cent to 71.7 per cent. Of course, the Minister for Health and Ageing, Tony Abbott, does not like us knowing how many of our constituents are being turned away from what used to be a universally free service. Mr Abbott is now saying that electorate bulk-billing figures will no longer be provided each quarter. Instead, we will have to wait 12 months before receiving updates on how many people in our community are able to access one of our most fundamental services.

Given that figures have just been provided, the minister is effectively saying that there will be no more electorate-specific figures on bulk-billing levels provided until February 2005. How convenient is that! I dare say the election will be well and truly over by the time we can actually see the devastation of bulk-billing rates in our electorate. The minister, Mr Abbott, may think he is being smart; he may think he is being cute; he may think he is playing politics—but this is a problem affecting so many families in our communities that it will be impossible for him to cover it up during an election. You only need to come into any electorate office each day to find that people are finding it harder and harder to access bulk-billing doctors.

Combined with a fall in bulk-billing rates, the average cost to see a GP who does not bulk-bill has risen quite markedly during the government's seven years in office—by 64 per cent. That is a massive increase for a fundamental service that most families access on a regular basis. It is not surprising, then, that in 2002-03 there were three million fewer GP visits than in the year before. So people are fundamentally not going to see their doctor or, worse, they are clogging emergency departments with non-emergency care.

At the same time, hospital emergency departments, including those in my electorate at Box Hill Hospital and the Monash Medical Centre, are being flooded by people looking for free GP style care. I know this first-hand from visiting these hospitals on numerous occasions. I certainly also know it through my husband's account of his work as a paramedic with MICA, an emergency service, taking people to hospital who are not ambulatory care patients but who have no other alternative because they cannot afford, or do not have, access to a GP anymore.

We are hearing this straight from the horse's mouth. One of my local newspapers, the Oakleigh-Monash Leader, ran a story a week or two ago about long waiting lists at Monash Medical Centre. The state opposition health spokesperson had been trying to make some political mileage out of figures contained in the hospital's service report. According to the newspaper article, the report said that the number of people on waiting lists for semi-urgent elective surgery at Monash Medical Centre had increased by 988 from September 1999 to September 2003. The number of people on semi-urgent waiting lists for more than 90 days had increased by 710 over the same period. A spokesperson for Southern Health Care Network, which runs the Monash Medical Centre, said waiting times had increased because the hospital was treating 78 per cent more patients at Monash Medical Centre than in the same period four years ago. That is an amazing increase.

The Southern Health spokesperson, Andrew Williamson, told the Oakleigh-Monash Leader:

Our medical, nursing and allied health staff ...have worked tirelessly to cope with this increased demand.

The reduction in the number of GPs bulk-billing in our area has put significant pressure on our emergency departments — often for ailments that would be more appropriate for GPs to treat.

Having visited Monash Medical Centre in recent times, I can certainly say that the staff in the emergency department have gone to great lengths to try to accommodate these increases, setting up alternative centres for people to be dispatched to in fairly rapid time. They can tell you each time a doctor chooses to discontinue bulk-billing. We have also had some of our 24-hour clinics on Clayton Road, leading to the medical centre, close down. There are no alternatives for these people in my electorate, so they are putting pressure onto the hospital. I know that in the eastern health network that Box Hill Hospital falls into they have again seen massively increasing rates in their emergency departments, particularly at William Angliss Hospital where they have seen a massive take-up rate of people using the emergency department for what could, and should, be serviced by their GP.

I call on the government—and particularly on the Minister for Health and Ageing, Mr Abbott—to do the right thing to ensure that Medicare survives for the Australian community and to do that by adopting Labor's $1.9 billion plan to get doctors bulk-billing again.

I also want to raise two public health issues on which the government, to its lasting shame, is dragging its feet. Hepatitis C transmissions in Australia have ballooned by 45 per cent over the past five years. The disease is Australia's most common notifiable disease, with 16,000 new infections in 2001—90 per cent of which occur as a result of injecting drug use. With the heroin drought over and this insidious drug back on our streets in large numbers, the threat is real and dangerous. Last year, the government sat on its review of the national hepatitis C strategy before quietly releasing it. The review stated clearly that a harm reduction approach to drug use is very effective in reducing risk behaviour and the transmission of blood-borne viruses.

Yet, in light of the advice from experts in the field, the minister for health simply put his head deeper in the sand and reaffirmed the government's blind commitment to its Tough On Drugs policy. The government ignored the review's calls for funding to be urgently given to needle and syringe programs, medical detoxification and peer based education programs. I support funding of programs to provide young people and their families with support, information and strategies to encourage people to reject illicit drugs. But I am also enough of a realist to know that, irrespective of these preventative programs, some young people—and some not so young—will always fall into using drugs. We should not close our eyes to the dangerous path that they are taking. We should provide them with enough support and information to give them options and minimise the harm they are doing to themselves. Stemming the spread of hepatitis C is an urgent national public health issue. What is needed are solutions which will work, not ideological posturing. The more we ignore this significant public health issue, the more we are endangering these particular people and the community at large. Hepatitis C is one of the most infectious diseases in our community. We should be doing something more about it.

Debate interrupted.