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Tuesday, 26 May 2009
Page: 4352

Mr SLIPPER (8:50 PM) —The residents of the Sunshine Coast, which is one of the areas I represent in the Australian parliament, face a risk of diminishing health services as a result of changes announced in the budget that will affect only a limited number of communities in Australia. The area to the east of the Bruce Highway between Coochin Creek and Forest Glen and roughly diagonally across to Coolum and then east of the Sunshine Motorway to Noosa has been reclassified as a metropolitan area as a result of the government switching from the Rural, Remote and Metropolitan Areas health region classification system to the Australian Standard Geographical Classification: Remoteness Areas system. The explanation is that the former system utilises population data dating back to 1991 while the new system is based on data from the 2006 census and, allegedly, is more accurate. Explanations aside, the new classification has the effect of making the coastal areas of my electorate no longer eligible for various incentives for doctors who wish to practise in the region. These lost incentive programs include the GP registrar placement program and the rural upskilling program.

My office has been advised that this affected area will retain Medicare bulk-billing incentives and benefits under the District of Workforce Shortage classifications. Areas in the electorate of Fisher that are outside this coastal strip, I am advised, will continue to have access to all of the incentives. However, for residents in areas like Kawana Waters, Caloundra, Currimundi, Little Mountain, Alexandra Headland, Mooloolaba and the adjacent areas on the coastal side of the Bruce Highway in my electorate, the fear is that some services will dry up as it becomes more and more difficult to attract doctors to work in the area as a result of those changes announced through the budget.

I ask the Minister for Health and Ageing to recognise the unique situation that the Sunshine Coast finds itself in; that is, it is too regional to attract doctors who wish to practise in a metropolitan area and it is too metropolitan to offer incentives to doctors wishing to work in a regional or rural area. I ask the minister to reverse the classification system so that we can deal better with our doctor shortages. I fear that it may be the case that doctors actually decide to leave the area to relocate in ‘greener pastures’, as any advantages that were previously to be gained by basing themselves professionally in what is a regional area have been struck out as a result of the government’s underhanded budget red pen. The greener pastures for these doctors may well be in Brisbane or, ironically, in areas more remote than the coastal regions of the Sunshine Coast. This may prove to be an advantage for areas like Beerwah, Landsborough, Maleny, Woodford and Kilcoy, which are still classified as rural and therefore have additional incentives available to local doctors. However, the major population areas along the coastal strip will be struggling.

Come 1 July, and with the introduction of the Australian Standard Geographical Classification: Remoteness Areas system for classifying health regions, the Sunshine Coast will be treated the same as the capital city of Brisbane. This change in turn means that doctors who would in the past have come to the region to work because of additional government benefits—which aim to ensure health professionals and adequate services are available in regional and rural areas—will no longer be eligible for allowances and subsidies such as the remote area incentives. Despite the loss of these incentives, young doctors will theoretically be able to secure a similar income whether located in this part of regional Queensland or in Brisbane. Gone is the incentive for doctors to practise away from Brisbane in the regional area of the Sunshine Coast.

It is my understanding that the Sunshine Coast is one of only two areas in Australia—the other being Gawler, north of Adelaide—that have had the health district status changed to ‘metropolitan’ as a result of the budget. The difference between Gawler and the Sunshine Coast is that Gawler is able to employ overseas trained doctors but we are not, due to our classification as a District of Workforce Shortage.

I am sure this situation is an unintended consequence. I am positive that the Prime Minister and the Treasurer did not intend to disadvantage the area from which they originated. This is, in my view, a bureaucratic mistake and I do call on the minister for health, the Prime Minister, also the Treasurer and, for that matter, the Minister for Ageing, who is from Nambour on the Sunshine Coast, to look at this matter again to make sure that people on the Sunshine Coast are treated with equity and are treated as people who reside in a regional area. We have desperate doctor shortages and yet this unintended change by the government mistreats our area terribly. (Time expired)