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Tuesday, 24 June 2003
Page: 12312

Senator TIERNEY (2:44 PM) —My question is also to the Minister for Health and Ageing, Senator Patterson. Will the minister update the Senate on the progress of the Howard government's successful More Doctors for Outer Metropolitan Areas program? Will the minister also update the Senate on a recent announcement related to this program, and is she aware of any alternative policies?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —I appreciate the question, Senator Tierney. I will reiterate—and I will keep saying it again and again and again—that we inherited from the Labor Party an absolutely appalling maldistribution of general practitioners. To change around those work force issues has required enormous investment of funds—$562 million to get doctors into rural areas, and in the election we promised an $80 million program to get doctors into outer metropolitan areas, to move 150 doctors from inner metropolitan areas to outer metropolitan areas. That program has begun to be rolled out as of 1 January this year, and we already have 75 doctors who have committed to moving into outer metropolitan areas or who have moved. There are about another 30 in the pipeline.

As we were working on this program, I was aware that there were areas of need, of consideration—because of low socioeconomic status or because of high aged population or because of some geographical difficulty in terms of identifying that area of need—that could also benefit from an incentive to get doctors into them. We have seen $30,000 if a doctor moves to a new practice and $20,000 if a doctor moves into an existing practice as sufficient to get doctors to move from inner areas, where we inherited an oversupply of doctors, to outer metropolitan areas, where patients are saying that they want access to doctors. They were neglected by the Labor Party in rural and outer metropolitan areas, and we are moving these incentives to get doctors there.

Because it has been successful, because we have actually identified some other areas of need, I have announced the extension of that program till the end of December this year so doctors who wish to move from an inner metropolitan area to an outer metropolitan area can do so. We are also prepared for that incentive to apply in areas that are still classified as inner metropolitan but which verge on the edge of an outer metropolitan area where they have shortages of doctors.

It is part of a whole program to improve the fairness of and access to Medicare. Just talking about funding, just talking about bulk-billing, does not actually get at the real problem of ensuring that we have doctors where we need them so people have access to them. That is critical. It also affects bulk-billing and, as I said before, we have inherited a maldistribution of doctors, where there were just far too many in metropolitan Melbourne. I was sitting and thinking only last night about how many doctors work within a stone's throw of my home and how many of those bulk-bill because there are far too many of them located in one area. We need to get a reasonable distribution of doctors across Australia—in cities, in outer metropolitan areas, in rural and remote communities. This is part of that package. It is going ahead of schedule. As I said, we have 75 doctors already for a program in which we thought it would take us four years to get 150 doctors. So it is very successful. I thank those doctors who have agreed to move. I look forward to seeing more applications.