September 30, 2021

Federal Member for Indi Helen Haines has called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to ensure the regional health system is ready for the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, and increase funding and staff to regional and rural health services.

As the vaccination rate increases across the country and lockdown restrictions ease, health services in the regions are preparing for something many of them have never dealt with before – COVID-19 in their communities.

“In recent weeks I have met with the leaders of health services across the North East. From Wodonga and Wangaratta to Benalla and Mansfield and Alexandra, I have been listening to how they are preparing for the next phase of the pandemic,” Dr Haines said.

“Significant work is already under way across Indi, with health services working through outbreak scenarios, putting processes in place, working out contingencies and understanding what resources are available and what is needed.

“While I have enormous confidence in the work of our local health services, and that they have extremely competent staff, I am concerned that they are fatigued. Staff have taken on many additional duties and health services have had to reconfigure wards and workflow to accommodate COVID 19 precautions and presentations.

”Some of the health services in Indi have expressed concern that increased COVID-19 circulating in the community will stretch resources for regional and rural health services that are already stretched.

“We know about the plan for opening up the economy as vaccination rates climb, but we need to know about targeted longer term plans for our rural health services,” Dr Haines said.

“That plan must include scaled up funding and support for regional health services as COVID enters the community. As we continue to open up, we will need access to surge healthcare workers to monitor COVID patients in their homes, and continue our vaccination drive through an outbreak. We need this to manage COVID alongside providing routine care such as elective surgery, emergency department, and maternity services.

“Transfers to city hospitals must happen swiftly. Here in regional Victoria, we do not want a repeat of what has happened in New South Wales where COVID patients became critical in their homes before transfer to hospital. And we need assurances that COVID patients sent to city hospitals will not be ramped and left waiting in ambulances in the streets.”

Dr Haines said regional health was already chronically under resourced before the pandemic. Rural communities tend to be older with higher rates of chronic disease and fewer doctors than city communities.

“I don’t want to hear from the federal government that this isn’t their problem. It was appalling when the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce brushed off questions about the regional response to COVID-19 by saying ‘We don’t own a hospital’.

“The last thing regional health needs right now, is buck passing and politics over who is responsible for our lives and livelihoods.

Now is the time to truly invest in our regional health systems, which have been neglected for decades.”

Investing in regional health must include a commitment to fund a new hospital for Albury-Wodonga, Dr Haines said.

“The response to the pandemic has highlighted just how much we need a new world-class hospital for Albury-Wodonga,” Dr Haines said.

“Within 15 years the population of the Albury-Wodonga region will grow by a third. By 2040 we’ll need a hospital capable of handling 150,000 emergency presentations, 40,000 surgeries and 1,900 births every year.

“This means we will need a larger hospital, at a single site, with more capacity and more specialist facilities. The care we need, close to home.”

Dr Haines used the call for funding to acknowledge the work of the healthcare workers who have been responding to the pandemic through testing and treating patients, through vaccination, and will be called on again in the next phase.

“I want to say thank you to the resilient, hard-working healthcare workers keeping us safe. I know the fatigue and mental health impacts on the ground are real. I see you and all that you do. It is noticed and it is appreciated.”

According to the latest statistics, 85 per cent of people in Indi have had one dose of vaccination against COVID-19, while 55.5 per cent are fully vaccinated. Indigo Shire has the highest rate of first doses at 89 per cent, while Benalla has the most people fully vaccinated at 61.2 per cent.

Wangaratta has the second highest rate of first doses at 87.7 per cent.

“Thank you to everyone who has rolled up their sleeve to get vaccinated so far,” Dr Haines said.

“Vaccination is the key to being able to open up safely while also protecting our health services from being overwhelmed. Getting vaccinated isn’t just something you do for your own safety, it’s something you do for your family, for the small business owners in your town, and for the doctors and nurses working in our hospitals.”

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