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Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Page: 280

Senator LINES (Western AustraliaDeputy President and Chair of Committees) (13:25): Last Wednesday was Medicare's 33rd birthday. Our universal healthcare system, set up by Labor, has been and will continue to be defended by Labor. Over the past 33 years, successive coalition governments have tried to take Medicare apart. The Turnbull government have continued, and have indeed stepped up, their attacks and cuts to Medicare—attacks and cuts which of course affect the most vulnerable Australians, older Australians and Australian families.

On Medicare's birthday last week, the Turnbull government did the most extraordinary thing: it closed its Belmont, WA Medicare office. Without notice, it just shut the doors. Let me tell you a little bit about the Belmont community to put into perspective the significance of the closure of this office. Belmont has a low SEIFA score—socioeconomic indexes for areas score—and is the second most disadvantaged local government area in Greater Perth. It has a higher than average number of people who left school before the age of 15. In the City of Belmont, the lowest quartile was the largest group in 2011, when it was measured, comprising 30 per cent of households with income. As for age, it has more people between 20 and 34 than the average, many of whom are families with children, who of course attend the doctor more than most other people, and it has a higher than average population of people over the age of 70—again, a group more likely to visit their GP and require services. It goes without saying that these people rely on Medicare and the services of their local Medicare office. Belmont has higher rates of hospitalisation for accidental falls in the elderly and, tragically, a higher rate of youth suicide among females.

Prior to the savage cuts the Turnbull government has made to cervical cancer services, women in Belmont had a low screening participation rate. Now that women will be required to pay not only for their GP visit but also for the required pathology, thanks to the Turnbull government's cuts to Medicare, I expect we will see these already low rates of participation drop even further. And for the Belmont community, and indeed all Australians, the PM's plans to increase the cost of prescription medicines and drive up out-of-pocket healthcare costs have been confirmed in the release of the Parliamentary Budget Office's report on unlegislated measures. This update confirms that the government still plans to increase PBS co-payments for general patients and concession patients and cut millions out of Medicare safety nets. The more expensive medicines become, the less likely people are to fill their prescriptions. Already, around 1.8 million Australians say they avoid filling prescriptions because of cost—this will only get worse. For many in the Belmont community, their future healthcare costs are looking very sick indeed. Belmont residents incur GP costs, as just three GPs in the area bulk-bill.

The closure, without notice, of the Belmont Medicare office comes off the back of the Turnbull government's increased cost of health to consumers and lack of access to bulk billed services to the Belmont community. Slamming shut the doors of this busy and well-utilised office was not expected and will create real hardships for many locals. Now, instead of their full-service Medicare office, Belmont residents are forced to suffer the indignity, embarrassment and lack of privacy of using what the government now describes as a pop-up outlet.

Let me describe to you what a pop-up outlet is. The Belmont pop-up outlet, where local residents are expected to access Medicare services, has seven cubicles, all facing outwards. Each cubicle is divided by flimsy partitions. The Belmont pop-up, situated in the Belmont shopping centre, sits in the middle of the centre, sandwiched between Woolworths, Bakers Delight and a chicken shop. The Medicare manager described it as 'WA's first pop-up outlet.' Does that mean other Western Australian Medicare offices will be closed and a poor second-rate pop-up put in place of a full service office?

The Belmont pop-up is noisy, lacking in privacy and has no waiting area, and—wait for it—cannot accommodate those Belmont residents who use motorised wheelchairs or buggies because they cannot fit into the cubicles and there is no laptop to provide any services to these Australians. It is not a full-service pop-up.

For full services, Belmont residents will need to undertake at least a two-bus journey to Cannington or a drive on roads which have heavy traffic. That is something the older Australians I spoke to when I visited the Belmont shopping centre last Friday are not able to do. People in the centre doing their shopping can easily see what is on the screen, so your private data could be easily accessed.

And what about the staff? I asked them if they felt vulnerable, standing around in the middle of a shopping centre. They told me they were not allowed to answer that question. There are no safe or secure places for them to put their belongings and nowhere private to have a break. When I asked the manager these questions, she said they could go and sit in the local coffee shop. What a disgrace. These are public servants who are entitled to certain health and safety conditions when they are at work. Whilst the seven or eight staff assigned to the former full service Belmont office are fully trained in all aspects of Medicare, they are not allowed to give advice. They can only direct customers to use on-screen services. That sounds like something out of I, Daniel Blake.

Many older Australians I spoke to at Belmont had neither used a computer before nor did they have the required email address. When I was sitting there last week I met a local resident by the name of Bev, who was sitting on a public seat while she waited to access the pop-up outlet. And the staff at the pop-up, who I have to say are working under extraordinary circumstances and doing the very best they can to provide some sort of public service, went up to Bev and asked for her email address. She is a woman in her 70s, who has never used a computer, so of course she does not have an email address. That is problem No. 1 for Bev when she is trying to access her Medicare information on the screen. What a disgraceful way to treat older Australians, who have worked all their lives and who can expect, quite rightly, to be treated with respect. They should be able to get the information they require from the public servant standing next to them, who is fully trained in all aspects of Medicare and fully able to answer their questions. But now they are not allowed to because they have to stand there and help people like Bev use a computer.

I do not know how anyone calls it efficient to sit and coach somebody to use a computer when they have never used it before and when that staff member is well able and trained to do the job. It is just madness. Those Australians and any Australian have the right to expect that advice.

The silence of the federal Liberal member for Swan and the state member for Belmont is deafening. I have taken the time to write to Mr Tudge and cc'd in the health minister, demanding a range of answers. At this point I am still waiting for responses to my letter.