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Wednesday, 22 August 2001
Page: 30068

Mr HORNE (12:21 PM) —I must admit that I was going to restrict myself to the specifics of the debate on the Health and Aged Care Legislation Amendment (Application of Criminal Code) Bill 2001, but having listened to the member for Hinkler I think I have a certain licence to range wide and far. I would like to point out that, with the closure of St Catherine of Siena and St Joseph's at Lochinvar, two of the Catholic Care of the Aged facilities in the Hunter region, we lose 88 high care beds. Last year the Hunter region was allocated a total of two high care beds.

Mr Neville —They're transferable, though.

Mr HORNE —That is the thing that has to be determined. All we know is that, at this stage, 88 have the potential to disappear and we had only two allocated last year for the whole of the Hunter region. So, as they close, even if they are transferable, it will require the building of a facility to house the beds to accommodate the people.

I may be a cynic, but when a debate on health and aged care is relegated to the Main Committee I wonder what the government has to hide, and where its priorities are. For the Labor Party, health and aged care are right on top. We are a party with a proud tradition of extending health services to all Australians, first through Medibank and then through Medicare. We were the party, when in government, that introduced quality, affordable aged care.

Just to refer to comments made by the member for Hinkler, all I can do is talk about experiences in my own electorate. When I think of my first term as member for Paterson, between 1993 and 1996 I certainly remember Mount Carmel nursing home being opened in Maitland, the Tanilba Bay facility—a 40-bed hostel—being opened and the expansion of Harbourside Haven. These were all brand-new facilities. I remember the Dungog nursing home being opened; it was 20 beds nursing home and 20 beds hostel. I must be quite specific there. These are the sorts of things that I remember in a three-year period. In the five years since we lost government, I am not aware of a single facility opening.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mrs De-Anne Kelly)—Order! I feel I must correct something the member for Paterson has said. I apologise for interrupting your address. Earlier you said that it was a decision for the government to refer bills to the Main Committee. It is a consultation between the opposition and government, and always a matter for both. My apologies for the interruption, but I felt it was important to clarify the point.

Mr HORNE —Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Despite the posturing by the Prime Minister and Ministers Wooldridge and Bishop, no-one can deny the disastrous state of affairs in health services in Australia today. I do not mind what sector of the health service the government wants to refer to, it is in crisis.

Let us start with public hospitals. Despite the Prime Minister's rhetoric in question time this week, waiting lists have blown out. Services have diminished and nurses have fled a system where their labour has been exploited. They have been used to prop up a failing system that is struggling for funds. The Prime Minister may be correct in saying that more money is being devoted to health, but what he conveniently omits is that the cost of services in the health industry has escalated at a greater rate than the increase in funding. In other words, services have contracted.

In areas I represent, whole communities—and some of them are quite large, being in excess of 10,000 people—do not have access to publicly funded hospital beds, which is something that we on this side of the House would consider a basic right of all Australians. That access is denied to tens of thousands of residents in the Paterson electorate. What magnifies the problem for my constituents is that many of them are retirees with the relatively greater need for access to health services, yet these are the very sorts of communities that are denied even basic services. I talk about communities such as Tomaree, which includes a whole host of smaller communities like Nelson Bay, Shoal Bay, Salamander Bay, Fingal Bay, Corlette, Anna Bay, in excess of 20,000 people. There is no public hospital. There is a clinic where you can be stabilised and prepared for transfer to Newcastle 30-odd kilometres away. I talk about communities like Foster and Tuncurry with another 14,000 people. They have a private hospital but no public beds. Those people have to go to Manning Base Hospital 25 kilometres away and with very limited transport connections. The irony is that because of its growth the Foster-Tuncurry area will be bigger than Taree in less than a decade. Yet it is the Howard government that is hell-bent on expanding the private health sector at the expense of the public sector.

We have already mentioned aged care. The member for Newcastle elaborated over a crisis that is eventuating in the Hunter region over high care beds. Again, let us talk about a convenience that this government uses of confusing the issue between high care and low care beds. High care beds, obviously, are at an enormous shortage in our area. I refer to one of my constituents whose case I highlighted in the media only a few weeks ago. Mr Carmody, a multiple stroke victim, waited in the Mater Hospital for 20 weeks. We heard the minister in question time yesterday talk about stabilising people and trying to get people to see whether they could go back home. This man waited 20 weeks in a hospital bed and we wonder why there are waiting lists in public hospitals. One of the reasons is that thousands of people are waiting for access to aged care facilities and they are taking up bed spaces in hospitals.

We also know of bed licences that were allocated two years ago but have not been put in place at this stage. I just wonder where these bed licences count. Do they count as bed places? They are not there yet; they were allocated but they have not been built. This is in areas that are growing rapidly. It is a retirement area; the demand is greater. That was certainly shown in the report that was sent to members that was recalled. I used the information to show that the demand in Paterson for aged care was far greater than the average yet the provision of facilities was far less.

Let us move on to bulk-billing. Again, I have communities that cannot access a medical practice that bulk-bills. For pensioners this is tragic. If they have to go to a medical practice that does not bulk-bill it means they are confronted with an upfront charge and they then have to apply for a Medicare rebate. But they live in communities where there is no Medicare office. Communities like Tomaree and Foster and Tuncurry do not have Medicare offices. Of course, people can go to the easy care claim, or whatever you call it, at the local pharmacy where they have to wait for up to 20 working days to get a rebate of their upfront cost from Medicare. To a pensioner, that is money out of their pocket for the 20 days that they have to wait. We need a far better system. The immediate rebate of upfront costs has to be a priority, particularly for pensioners.

Concerning doctors: I have communities like Medowie which has 8,000 people and one and one-third general practitioners. It is a rapidly growing community with lots of young families. Why can that community not get doctors? Again, we could go to the RRMA classification because next door to Medowie are two very similar communities—Tanilba Bay and Lemon Tree Passage—with similar numbers of people. The point is that Lemon Tree Passage and Tanilba Bay are classified as rural and they have four medical practices, two of them with two practitioners. So we can see that communities that are very similar but have different classifications are certainly treated very differently.

Hawks Nest and Tea Gardens are fairly well known because the Prime Minister used to go there for his holidays. I hope he did not get sick when he got there, because the only general practitioner in Hawks Nest is a formerly retired doctor. He retired to Hawks Nest and decided, when he got there, that the need was so great that he would take up practice again. Actually, we had two of them, but a month ago Dr Everett decided that he would call it a day. We have a community like Karuah, situated right on the Pacific Highway, with one part-time doctor who is not very well and practises only part time. There is a pharmacy in Karuah associated with that practice. If that doctor simply withdraws his services, that community will also lose its pharmacy because anyone who has to go into Raymond Terrace or beyond to access medical services will obviously get their prescription made up there. So the whole health service in that community is under threat.

Look at a town like Bulahdelah. Bulahdelah has a hospital, a 60-bed nursing home and one doctor. Before Christmas last year, that doctor had a major heart attack and had to have a stent put into his aorta. He now works for only half a day each day. Yet this town is situated right on the very busiest section of the Pacific Highway. Bulahdelah is fairly well known for quite horrific and fatal accidents and the demands for a doctor are great. Yet there is only one doctor—that is quite tragic.

If the Howard government wants to rest on its laurels over the way it treats health, so be it. If the Prime Minister wants to jump up at question time and posture about expenditure on health and aged care, obviously that is his prerogative. I represent a regional and rural electorate. People out there know the truth: they are being denied access to the sorts of health services that they used to have, and they want to know why. As we approach the election, I am sure they will be asking: why have health services, in whatever category, been reduced, restricted and cut back? We all know they certainly have been.