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Monday, 9 December 2013
Page: 1882

Ms RISHWORTH (Kingston) (11:11): I move:

That this House:

(1) notes the importance of having a well-trained medical workforce including doctors, nurses and allied health professionals for the sustainability of our health system;

(2) acknowledges the work of Health Workforce Australia in increasing the percentage of clinical training days for students, with the most recently released figures demonstrating a 50 per cent increase in 2012 compared to 2010;

(3) recognises that this increase in clinical training has been in part the result of the support provided to universities and health clinics through the Clinical Training Funding program;

(4) notes with concern the evidence provided in Senate Estimates on the 20 November 2013 by the Assistant Minister for Health that unallocated funds to support clinical training are currently frozen; and

(5) calls on the Government to immediately make available the money within Health Workforce Australia that assists universities and health services to make clinical placements available so that students can have improved access to placements in the upcoming academic year.

There are significant challenges facing Australia's health workforce for the future. The demand being driven by growth in chronic disease, increased expectations from the community and an ageing population means that, now more than ever, it is important that governments plan to have a well trained medical workforce for the sustainability of our healthcare system.

I am moving this motion because I believe it is irresponsible of this government to freeze funding which is so vital in ensuring these objectives are met and to threaten organisations which play such a vital role in health workforce planning for the future. Thousands of student doctors, nurses and allied health workers currently face an uncertain future thanks to the Abbott government. Funding to support clinical placements—essential for these students to finish their training or expand their scope of practice—has been frozen thanks to the Abbott government's commission of cuts. Students cannot finish their training and start work as much needed health professionals without access to clinical placements in universities and healthcare facilities.

When questioned in Senate estimates, the Assistant Minister for Health, Fiona Nash, admitted that the Abbott government had frozen the funding of Health Workforce Australia, which helps support universities and health providers to make clinical placements available. Shame on this government for locking up funding for such a vital program to support universities and healthcare operators provide clinical placements. Unfortunately, the coalition has a history of ignoring the future needs of the health workforce. When the now Prime Minister was health minister in the Howard government, he had an atrocious record on health workforce planning. He put a cap on GP training places which caused shortages of GPs right across the country. The Howard government's legacy on the health workforce was not one to be proud of, and the issues went much wider than GP training places. Indeed, 74 per cent of Australia faced a medical workforce shortage when Labor took office in 2007. This affected 60 per cent of the population, including many constituents in my electorate of Kingston who struggled to find a local GP. Of course, it was not just limited to my local electorate; it was right across the country. There was no vision and no policy during the Howard era in which the now Prime Minister was the health minister. It seems that this is a pattern that will continue now that he is Prime Minister. What we will see as a result is that Australia will head backwards in workforce planning and we will not have enough medical, nursing and allied health graduates to ensure that our needs are met. Indeed, when Labor came to office we had to start fixing up the mess that the previous health minister, the now Prime Minister, left.

Labor understood that there needed to be proper workplace planning when we came to government in 2007. We understood that there were wide-reaching problems going forward about supply of a well trained and well distributed health workforce. The member for Grey is here. I am sure he would understand the importance of a well distributed workforce to ensure that regional and remote areas are properly serviced.

Labor funded a $1.1 billion National Partnership Agreement on Hospital and Health Workforce Reform which included: more funding for undergraduate clinical training; an increase of postgraduate training places; and a huge capital investment into teaching and training infrastructure to expand teaching and training, especially at major regional hospitals to improve clinical training in rural Australia. We established a national health workforce agency, Health Workforce Australia, to drive a long-term vision and plan for our health workforce.

Health Workforce Australia is an important organisation. It was established through COAG to ensure the government had an agency that was committed to building capacity, boosting productivity and improving the distribution of our health workforce. The agency works in collaboration with a number of key stakeholders and has direct links with states and territories, which are the biggest employers in our health system. Importantly, it has links on the boards of universities that train our medical workforce which focus on providing leadership, advice, research and funding to address the challenges of building a sustainable health workforce for our future.

Australia needs Health Workforce Australia. It has proven that it can respond and plan for our future health workforce needs. For example, when the former Labor government increased bowel screening, many Australians required an endoscopy; however, the capacity in the workforce for endoscopy nursing was not there. Health Workforce Australia responded through the Expanded Scopes of Practice program and made funding available to support nurses to extend their skills as well as respond to the growing demand for these services. This is an example of Health Workforce Australia responding flexibly and quickly to the needs of the community to ensure that important preventative measures occur.

Programs such as the Clinical Training Funding program delivered by Health Workforce Australia have had a significant impact. Indeed, the number of clinical placement days in 2012 increased by 50 per cent, compared to 2010. The funding contributed to a huge increase in placement days in rural and remote Australia, an area which so desperately needs more health professionals.

The Clinical Training Funding program was expanding the clinical training capacity of the health workforce in Australia and promoting the growth in clinical training placement days in 25 different health professions to address workforce shortages—a great example of how essential this funding was to supporting growth in training and addressing health workforce issues. But this funding to support clinical placements is now frozen thanks to this government's commission of cuts. If this is not unfrozen, it will lead to students not being able to access the clinical placements they need and to existing health professionals not having the facilities to expand their clinical skills. This threatens all the great work that has been done by Health Workforce Australia over the last few years to help build capacity in our training places and to improve productivity in our health workforce.

Students will now be facing uncertainty over whether or not there will be facilities and training services available so they can pursue a healthcare career of their choice. The money which this government is holding up through its commission of cuts is hurting the ability of government agencies to provide essential programs to support clinical placements to get the health workforce we need.

I have grave concerns that the government may even cut this money altogether and abolish Health Workforce Australia. We know it has already axed the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council and flagged abolishing the National Preventative Health Agency. Axing Health Workforce Australia will send us backwards to a time when the now Prime Minister was health minister and when there was no coordination, no planning and no vision for our health workforce needs into the future. I call on the minister and the Prime Minister to release these funds. The new academic year is fast approaching. Students will want to know whether or not they can get a clinical place. They will want to know if they can pursue the career of their dreams. Freezing this funding really is quite irresponsible, quite retrograde and will really have, I believe, an incredibly detrimental effect.

As our population ages we will need more, not fewer, doctors, nurses and allied health workers—and we will need to ensure that they are distributed around the country. If Health Workforce Australia is abolished, as we know the minister has mooted for some time, these funds will be lost. These important funds have had a demonstrable impact on our clinical training places. As I said, we had a 50 per cent increase in two years. This is critically important. If these funds are not released, it will prevent students from finishing their training. The Abbott government will be leaving these students and those health professionals who want to extend their experience in limbo and denying Australians much-needed, home-grown health workers. We know that often the government's answer is to use 457 visas to grow workforces, but people want to train home-grown people here who want to have a career in the medical workforce. I call on the government to immediately reinstate this funding so our students can finish their training and become the doctors, nurses and allied health workers we need for the future.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Mitchell ): I thank the member for Kingston. Is the motion seconded?

Ms Ryan: I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: I thank the member for Lalor. The question is that the motion be agreed to.