Independent Federal Member for Indi Helen Haines has called on the federal government to establish a $1 billion rural hospital fund to finance essential health infrastructure in small towns across regional Australia, including capital works, equipment, and planning approvals.
“From Mansfield to Bright and Benalla we’ve got small rural health services across Indi who barely get a look-in when it comes to hospital infrastructure funding.” Dr Haines said.
“In regional and rural Australia, the health needs of our communities are growing, but our health services are being left to fall behind.
“As our communities grow and age, we are faced with outdated, ageing and often dangerous infrastructure. It was bad before the pandemic, but the last two years have shown just how big the problem is.”
Existing funding arrangements for health infrastructure are not working for small rural health services to get the funding they need, Dr Haines said, pointing to the example of Mansfield District Hospital. Mansfield District Hospital’s Master Plan was submitted to the Victorian Health Building Authority over two years ago, yet there has been no movement on funding since then.
“They shouldn’t have to go cap-in-hand to the Minister’s office to push for ad hoc funding. They shouldn’t have to hope that a special deal will appear around election time. Funding should be significant, ongoing, and transparent.”
The Federal Government has funded rural hospitals through similar projects in the past, but these haven’t been ongoing, making it hard for health services to apply for and plan for funding.
A one-off $1.25 billion Community Health and Hospital Fund was administered right after the last election in 2019. The Australian National Audit Office is considering an audit of the program, focusing on whether value for money was achieved and the selection and allocation of funds.
Since 2019, direct federal funding has all but disappeared except for small projects through the Building Better Regions Fund. Only around 2 per cent of that fund has gone toward rural hospital infrastructure over the lifetime of the fund.
“Rural health services often include hospitals, residential aged care and other primary health care facilities,” Dr Haines said.“The Federal Government has a role to play in funding these rural health services, and they have done so before.
“I am proposing this fund to bring consistency and fairness to the process, as well as to ensure towns across Indi can access the funding needed to build the health infrastructure we urgently need.”
“I have heard about hospitals with marquees set up in car parks to manage infection control, or leasing and retrofitting nearby residential houses so doctors can have consultation rooms.“It shouldn’t be this inconsistent, especially in a pandemic.”
Dr Haines has also announced policies to increase the health workforce in Indi.
“Addressing health issues in regional Australia isn’t as simple as building new hospitals, it’s about building the workforce, so we can see a doctor or nurse, or psychologist when we need to, and have access to world-class allied health services close to home,” Dr Haines said.
Dr Haines said she would fight to triple the number of locally trained doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other allied health workers across Indi, starting with the Murray Darling Medical Schools Network program at La Trobe University in Wodonga.
“The Murray Darling Medical Schools Network program at La Trobe University is fantastic, but fifteen new doctors a year is nowhere near what we need to build a sustainable local health workforce for generations to come.”
Dr Haines also announced a plan to increase federal funding for mid-career regional health professionals to take on upskilling opportunities.
“If we create opportunities for long-term fulfilling health careers in our region, we all benefit. Junior doctors become senior doctors, allied health professionals stay and grow. This is what we need to keep health workers here and embedded in our communities.”