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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 634

Mr MITCHELL (2:46 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing. How will enhancements to primary care assist ageing Australians and those with mental health issues?

Mr BUTLER (Minister for Mental Health and Ageing) —I thank the member for McEwen for his question. As this House knows, this government and this Prime Minister are strongly committed to health reform and to building a modern healthcare system that extends the extraordinary achievements that our country made last century to building Australian health outcomes well into the 21st century. Central to that task is building a robust and integrated primary healthcare network. As members well know, primary care in Australia is largely delivered through a market based fee-for-service system funded through Medicare; and, while this system works very well for most Australians, it leaves gaps for many others. These gaps particularly affect older Australians and Australians experiencing mental illness. That is why the government accepted the central recommendation of the Bennett commission—to establish a network of primary healthcare organisations—and that is why an accelerated rollout of Medicare locals and a GP after-hours service were central to the recent COAG agreement achieved by the Prime Minister a couple of weeks ago.

Medicare locals will transform the coordination and the delivery of good-quality primary care in local communities. They will ensure that patients are assigned a GP after discharge from hospitals to reduce the chance of readmission—a chance that is particularly high for older Australians and Australians with mental illness. They will play a critical role in facilitating arrangements between aged-care facilities, GPs and allied health professionals to increase the number of services being delivered at aged-care facilities, because we know that when those arrangements are in place residents simply receive more services. They will manage the GP after-hours service, which was fast-tracked by the Prime Minister at the recent COAG agreement. While this is obviously great news for all Australians, including older Australians living at home, it is simply a godsend for registered nurses working night shift at residential aged-care facilities, whose only resort when a resident falls ill is often to call an ambulance. These connections between aged care and primary care are critical to reducing the number of traumatic, avoidable hospital admissions from aged-care facilities, which currently occur about once every 20 minutes or so.

The most common feedback that I have received from Australians experiencing mental illness, particularly severe mental illness, is the lack of good integration between the different clinical and non-clinical support services that they receive. Medicare locals will be able to deliver, for the first time under a Commonwealth health program, integrated packages of care that deliver clinical and non-clinical support services wrapped around their individual needs—a reform that will be more responsive to individual needs and a reform that undoubtedly will deliver better outcomes. More broadly, Medicare locals will quickly become innovators in this important area of quality primary care lifting our research effort in this important field and driving the continuous improvement in health care for Australians.

This is a welcome and overdue reform. It will deliver better outcomes in health for all Australians but, importantly, it will help ensure that older Australians and Australians living with mental illness get access to the same level of good-quality primary health care that the rest of us take for granted.