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Thursday, 25 July 2019
Page: 1102


Ms CHESTERS (Bendigo) (11:26): I rise today to speak about the growing GP crisis that we are experiencing in Bendigo and the towns and communities of greater Bendigo. It's a crisis that we have not seen since 2004, when it was widely reported that GPs in Bendigo had closed their books. New people moving to our town could not access a GP and would quite often spend many mornings ringing around trying to get any appointment that they could. Here we are in 2019, and the crisis has reoccurred. We now find ourselves in another GP crisis in Bendigo, and it is of this government's making.

But don't take my word for it. Take the word of local GPs. Many have spoken out in our local media recently about the growing crisis and the problems that we are experiencing. Take the word of Bendigo Community Health Service's director of primary health care services, Graem Kelly, who said that people in our community were being put 'dramatically at risk' because of the GP shortage. He said that there was a 'real medical crisis' on a number of fronts, putting pressure on bulk-billing clinics. He said that two groups were affected who need urgent attention: people who might have colds or flus, and those with chronic disease who can't get regular appointments to see GPs.

Bendigo Primary Care Centre chief executive Glen Careedy has also spoken out and said that there is an increased demand for health care in our region but we are struggling to find new doctors. He said that the clinic is fully booked early each morning. And I would know, because this is my own clinic, and I also struggle to get appointments on the days that I require them. I'm not alone in that. He said that they've been advertising for GPs for about two years, with virtually no response. He went on to say that Bendigo's doctor shortage is becoming similar to what it was in 2004, when anyone who moved to the area could not get a doctor because most had closed their books. It's not just these bigger clinics that are struggling to attract GPs to the area. Many of our smaller clinics have also spoken out, whether they are in Woodend, Castlemaine, Heathcote or Bendigo. Creek Street clinic has also spoken out about the struggle to attract new doctors, young doctors, to Bendigo to work in general practice.

At the end of the day, it is our GPs, in their day-to-day practice, who help keep our communities healthy and keep the pressure off emergency rooms. The government did make an announcement, after much pressure from local GPs. It did look like we were going to be excluded from the District of Workforce Shortage list, meaning that we could not attract overseas doctors or new doctors to the area. But the government has seen that that was a mistake and has said that, from 1 July 2019, the new health workforce classification system, called Distribution Priority Areas, will commence, and Bendigo is on the list. This means that we will have recruits who are restricted to work in these areas. Overseas trained doctors and Australian bonded doctors will be encouraged to move to these areas if they wish to practise medicine. That is welcome. However, it is not the solution to our problem.

The GPs highlighted to me that the bigger problem is that Bendigo's geographical classification has been changed. From 1 January 2020, bulk-billing rebates will be reduced. They will be cut per patient. They'll be cut from $9.50 to $6.30. That starts to put real pressure on GPs and clinics. It means that the income that a full-time GP who bulk-bills every patient will lose will be about $400 a week. It will force more GPs to charge gap fees for all their patients. We already have high gap fees. We know that once you charge a gap fee you lose the bulk-billing incentive. This will mean that fewer doctors will come to the area to set up and establish practices or take on roles in practices. We are not a wealthy area. While some areas are doing well, others aren't. The average income is less than $50,000 a year, meaning people will put off going to the GP. The crisis in Bendigo will worsen if the government is going to cut GP bulk-billing incentives. I urge the government not to.