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Monday, 5 March 2001
Page: 24920

Mr WAKELIN (2:54 PM) —My question is addressed to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Will the Deputy Prime Minister advise the House what action has been taken by the federal government in regard to the delivery of improved health services to those who live in rural, regional and remote Australia. Would the minister outline any alternative approaches that have been put forward in this area.

Mr ANDERSON (Deputy Prime Minister) —I thank the honourable member for his question. I will say a couple of things about some of the things that the Commonwealth government are doing in his electorate in a moment. Our record on rural and regional health, I think, speaks loudly and clearly for itself. We are determined to do everything that we can to ensure a reasonable quality of service delivery right across Australia in terms of health and health outcomes. One clear piece of evidence is the $562 million health package More Doctors, Better Services. It will get more doctors, more allied health professionals and more specialists into country areas. There is an extensive shortage in all three areas.

There has been the extension of the full Medicare rebate to GP services provided by OMPs, other medical practitioners. There has been a significant contribution to the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, ACRRM as it is known, to strengthen its role in supporting and training rural GPs. There has been a $117 million commitment for nine new rural clinical schools and two new university departments of health. At least 25 per cent of medical students will receive a minimum of half of their training in rural and remote areas. This will dramatically change the way in which medical education is delivered in this country. It will create a truly rurally focused national network of professional medical and health training.

An example is the Whyalla Rural Clinical School, which I visited with the Minister for Health and Aged Care some 13 or 14 months ago. There was a real excitement in the air and a very positive attitude about what they are achieving. That will have a wide outreach into the Spencer Gulf region and the Eyre and the York peninsulas, including the centres of Whyalla, Port Augusta, Port Pirie, Coober Pedy, Port Lincoln and the surrounding district. We have established, too, the Rural Australia Medical Undergraduate Scholarship Scheme, an idea that came up, as the minister for health will recall, amongst other places, at Mudgee in my electorate. The scheme provides up to $10,000 for country students to study medicine.

The research shows that young people from country areas are nine times more likely to practise in rural, regional or remote areas than are people from metropolitan areas. It is very interesting to note that in broad terms—I think the minister for health would confirm this—to get the supply of country doctors and specialists needed, the medical schools in the country need to be averaging around 25 per cent in their intake of country kids. Do honourable members know what it got down to under the ALP? We are addressing a massive policy failure—not just a lack of provision of resources but also a failure of planning—by the previous government. In some medical schools I understand it got down to two or three per cent. We are aiming to get it back up to 25 per cent with these sorts of approaches.

The Medical Rural Bonded Scholarship Scheme will provide $20,000 to 100 medical students annually, conditional upon a commitment on their part to work in a rural area for six years. More recently I have strongly supported the request from the AMA and the Rural Doctors Association for a proper look at the issue of the impact of the Trade Practices Act on the recruitment and retention of doctors in rural areas. There is a continual expression of concern here. We need to get it sorted out.

Through pressure from the minister for health, from me and from others, the New South Wales government is finally starting to look like it might do something about the spiralling cost of medical indemnity insurance. In the town of Mudgee in my electorate the cost of obstetrics has got so high that the local GPs are simply talking about not delivering babies locally—sending people 150 kilometres away just to have babies—when at every other time the expectations of these Australians, entirely reasonably, would have been to have had their babies in Mudgee. This reflects the Labor Party's lack of commitment to health in rural and regional areas. The Victorian government, back in the days when Mr Kennett was Premier, overcame the problem quite readily by classifying visiting medical officers as employees of hospitals, meaning that the insurance costs were covered by the Victorian government, not by individual doctors. But what did we get in New South Wales? As usual, we got a refusal to grapple with this very serious problem. Those Labor Party attitudes were reflected last night by the Leader of the Opposition when he announced the ALP's priorities for health. Lots of platitudes were delivered last night by the Leader of the Opposition but, in reality, compared to what we have delivered, no commitments at all. We have the runs on the board.

The question has to be asked: where were the federal ALP when we announced in last year's budget the $562 million package More Doctors, Better Services? What was the response? Silence. They were alone in that silence. The package was welcomed by, amongst others, the National Rural Health Alliance, the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, the rural doctors, the Australian Democrats, the ICPA, the NFF, the AMA, the Council of the Ageing, and rural people right across Australia. But where were the ALP? Silent.