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Monday, 11 August 2003
Page: 12963

Senator ALLISON (2:22 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Health and Ageing. As the minister will be aware, in 2003 Indigenous health is still on average three times worse than the health of all other Australians. Why is it that spending on Medicare and the PBS for Aboriginal people is only a third of that spent on non-Indigenous Australians? Now that the Prime Minister has been out into Aboriginal communities, will we see the Commonwealth support increase to reflect the seriousness of the situation?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —I thank Senator Allison for her question and thank her for her recognition that I have been out into Indigenous communities—

Senator PATTERSON —The Prime Minister—I thought you were acknowledging that I had been out into Indigenous communities as well. I have been into Indigenous communities. Only last week I was in Tennant Creek where we were celebrating a Croc festival, which is, for those of you who have never been to a Croc festival, an outstanding program, as part of our drugs program, to give young Indigenous people an opportunity to express their skills through dance and music, and also during the daytime having programs on health, education et cetera. All those things lead to them having better health in the end. Before that I did a major trip through the Northern Territory, across the Top End down through Thursday Island, Palm Island, Cairns and Townsville, and across to the Pilbara and the Kimberley and, as I just said, back then into the Northern Territory last week.

In fact, we have almost doubled our spending on Indigenous health—a 90 per cent increase. Only a few weeks ago I announced—I will be corrected—additional funding of around $6 million or $6½ million to assist the upgrading of Aboriginal health services in the Northern Territory. I also announced funding to build accommodation for staff. One issue in attracting people into remote areas to work in Indigenous health services is the lack of accommodation. We are doing a couple of these projects in cooperation with the Northern Territory government. We have increased access to PBS and MBS in Indigenous communities. We have a program to enrol Indigenous people in Medicare. We have a program to enable people in Indigenous communities to access pharmaceutical benefits through the pharmaceutical S100 scheme—I think it is called—where now Indigenous health services can have pharmaceuticals located in locked areas, which was not the case before when people had to get a script, send it off and sometimes wait weeks for it to come back through the mail. Now the most commonly used medications are available in the Aboriginal health services through the S100 program. That means people get access to antibiotics and other forms of pharmaceuticals that they need quickly to treat conditions in a much more timely way than they were receiving before.

If Senator Allison were to go out to some of these communities and if she were to go to one such as the Townsville Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Service, she would see some of the most outstanding primary health care in the world, better than you get in some general practices in inner city areas. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health services have an extension program for mums and babies, which we have funded. We have seen increased improvement in Indigenous children's health. I have not got the figures here to indicate to you the reduction in the number of children who have had pneumococcal meningitis as a result of the program that we have run with the pneumococcal vaccine for children in Indigenous communities in Central Australia. There are a number of other measures which have demonstrated changes in Indigenous health, particularly in Indigenous children. We have a long way to go. I have talked at length to Minister Aagaard. It is an issue that we are working on together. I hope to have a meeting with Lee Stevens very shortly. We are working on a project in the Pitlands as one of the eight projects that COAG has identified. Minister Ruddock and I were visiting there recently and opened a new medical centre in Kintore. (Time expired)

Senator ALLISON —Mr President, I thank the Minister for Health and Ageing for her answer and ask a supplementary question. Minister, can you guarantee that Aboriginal Australians will not continue to die from easily preventable diseases because they have no access to GPs under the programs you have described? Isn't it the case that primary health care for Indigenous people is largely funded by the states and then only marginally better funded per capita than non-Indigenous Australians, despite the very serious and great need? Will you accept that the fee-for-service mainstream market forces model does not work to get GPs into remote areas? When will the government consider returning to community health programs for Indigenous Australians so we can target the poorest and the sickest in our community?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —I can guarantee that the spending on Indigenous health under this government has increased by 90 per cent over and above the spending under the Labor Party. I can guarantee that health outcomes for Indigenous communities are better than they were under Labor. I can guarantee that we will provide more accommodation to get those doctors out into those rural areas. I can guarantee that when we increased the number of medical student places by 234, against all the odds, I asked the dean of the school of medicine in South Australia to commit to taking 15 students from the Northern Territory. I spoke to the people in the Northern Territory on Tuesday or Wednesday asking them to identify young people who lived in the Northern Territory and who had completed their first degree, undertaken nursing or undertaken their training to be able to undertake medicine to ensure that we have a deep change in the supply of doctors. You cannot turn these things around overnight. We need a deep structural change to ensure that we educate young people from the Northern Territory so that they will go back and work with people in Indigenous communities. (Time expired)