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Tuesday, 30 July 2019
Page: 1159

Senator ASKEW (Tasmania) (16:54): I rise to continue my contribution on the Health Insurance Amendment (Bonded Medical Programs Reform) Bill 2019 from earlier today. As I mentioned earlier, health care is a topic of much discussion, at the moment, in my home state of Tasmania. The public health system in Tasmania, as in other jurisdictions, is dealing with increasing demand and costs in delivering medical services. With a population that is ageing faster than the rest of the country, we have some unique public health challenges.

The Morrison government is supporting the Hodgman Tasmanian Liberal government in addressing these challenges. We are also getting close to the completion of the state's biggest ever health infrastructure project with the redevelopment of the Royal Hobart Hospital. When this project is completed, shortly, it will mean increased bed capacity, more operating and procedure rooms, and state-of-the-art facilities for all Tasmanians.

The increase in health infrastructure was led by the previous Tasmanian Minister for Health, the Hon. Michael Ferguson MP, who, over the last five years as Tasmanian health minister, delivered more than 1,000 additional health staff, opened 130 hospitals beds, secured the future of the Mersey Community Hospital and oversaw redevelopment of each of the state's major hospitals.

Earlier this year the Hon. Sarah Courtney MP took the reins as the health minister. In her first few weeks she's already met staff and patients, to hear their stories firsthand. She has talked to hundreds of frontline staff about the real challenges they face. She has spoken with patients who have had nothing but praise for the hardworking staff in Tasmania's public health system and the wonderful care they provide.

As a nation we face an increasing demand for public health services and an ever-increasing rise in the cost of medical services. As mentioned by Senators Brockman and Smith, in their contributions on the Western Australian experience, Tasmania also has many towns that find it difficult to attract and keep their general practitioners. The Morrison government is addressing these needs. In rural, regional and remote Australia, including Tasmania, we need to recruit and retain doctors in our local communities. This recruitment and retainment of doctors is even more vital as we increase the capacity of the Tasmanian health system and open more beds.

The Health Insurance Amendment (Bonded Medical Programs Reform) Bill 2019 is one of the strong coalition government responses, as part of the $550 million investment into the stronger rural health strategy, which responds to the national challenge of ensuring primary health care is accessible and available to all Australians, no matter where they live. In the 2018-19 federal budget, the coalition government provided $20.2 million over four years to reform the bonded medical programs by consolidating them into a single framework. The bonded medical programs provide a Commonwealth funded place in a medical course at an Australian university. In return, the participant agrees to work as a doctor, for a period of time, in a rural, regional or remote location or area of workforce shortage. This is known as a 'return of service obligation'.

There are two individual schemes currently in place. The Medical Rural Bonded Scholarship Scheme, which commenced in 2001 and was closed to new entrants at the end of the 2015 academic year. The scheme provided up to 100 Commonwealth supported places each year, in a medical course, at an Australian university with an attached scholarship. Participants signed a contract requiring them to work as a doctor in a rural or remote area for six years once they attain fellowship. The other scheme is the Bonded Medical Places Scheme, which commenced in 2004. It provides a Commonwealth supported place, in a medical course, at an Australian university to a participant, in exchange for agreement to work in an underserviced area for a length of time equivalent to the length of their medical degree.

This bill will amend the Health Insurance Act 1973 by introducing a statutory scheme to administer the reformed bonded medical programs from 1 January 2020. It will help increase the number of fully qualified Australian trained doctors working in regional, rural and remote locations and areas of workforce shortage across the country. This bill will provide modern, streamlined administrative requirements and will provide clarity and flexibility on the program, with greater capacity for the program to support Australian doctors to move and be retrained in regional, rural and remote Australia, with more options as to when, where and how the return of service obligation can be completed, and with stronger professional support for doctors. There are currently 9,406 program participants studying at medical school or in prevocational training under the older programs. The bonded medical places—

Debate interrupted.