Dr HAINES (Indi) (14:19): My question is to the Minister for Health and Aged Care.
Our rural health workforce is so thin that both our hospitals and aged-care services have no choice but to pay exorbitant agency and accommodation fees to employ and house doctors and nurses. Albury-Wodonga Health spent $2.1 million last year on accommodation for locum workers, money that could be spent on patient care.
How do you know that your budget measures will make a difference to the rural health workforce crisis?
Mr BUTLER (Hindmarsh—Minister for Health and Aged Care and Deputy Leader of the House) (14:20): I thank the member for her question. There’s quite a wealth of experience and understanding of health issues on the crossbench, none more so than the member for Indi’s long experience in public health, and I value her advice and feedback.
As she knows as well as anyone in this space, the deep workforce shortages that are being experienced right across the health and aged-care systems are most acute in rural and regional Australia. They are there in the cities, but they were there earlier, and they are more acute in rural and regional Australia, as I think everyone in this parliament understands to some degree. We are determined to strengthen Medicare and work with state and territory colleagues, as the aged-care minister is doing, for a hospital system and for an aged-care workforce for all Australians, including those Australians who live outside of our major cities.
I want to pay tribute to the work that the assistant minister for rural health, the member for Dobell, is doing on this. That work for us started in the October budget. We’ve never pretended that these issues would be fixed overnight, but we were determined to start work on them as quickly as we possibly could. We put in place additional workforce incentives for doctors—for example, additional skills in emergency medicine, in mental health, in obstetrics. They started in our first budget last October. I thought they would have been supported by those opposite, who are heckling. We also put in place additional incentives for nurse practitioners, which I’ll come back to because they are such a great potential source of expert clinical work, particularly in rural Australia.
We expanded rural training, as the member knows, including an expansion of the John Flynn program. We reinstated the, frankly, inexplicable decision made by the former government to get rid of the bulk-billing loading for telehealth psychiatry at a time when rural and regional Australia were benefiting from the benefits of technology. We’re expanding the single-employer model from one pilot project under the former government to 21. I only yesterday wrote to state and territory ministers for an additional 10 sites across Australia. And as I said in response to the member for Gilmore’s question, the bulk-billing incentives will be higher outside the major cities than they are in the major cities, which is why I think you saw the response from the Rural Doctors Association to our budget, which said:
This Budget has gone a long way to fixing the under-investment in rural health and primary care over the past decade.
But I agree with the member for Indi; this is not getting to happen overnight. The national cabinet is seized of this issue. The national cabinet asked the very eminent public servant, Robyn Kruk, to undertake a comprehensive review of the recruitment and registration of overseas trained doctors and health professionals, which, as the member knows, are more important in rural communities than they are elsewhere. As health ministers, we’re working now on the implementation of that interim report.