Question Time: Hunter GP Access
9th November 2021
Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (15:12): My question is directed to the Minister for Health. With Hunter Primary Care having announced closure or reduced operating hours for some GP access after-hours services in Lake Macquarie and the lower Hunter due to funding shortages, how will the Government ensure those communities are not disadvantaged in access to primary health care and that demand is not transferred to hospital emergency departments?
Mr BRAD HAZZARD (Wakehurst—Minister for Health and Medical Research) (15:13): I thank the member for Lake Macquarie not just for his question but also for all the work he has done to support his community during the COVID pandemic. He has really been incredible and it was great to work with him. I know that today we are down to about seven cases in Lake Macquarie; I would like that to be zero. The Government and I will continue to work with the member for Lake Macquarie and appreciate everything he has done on behalf of his community. On that issue, I should emphasise that today is a great day. Who would have believed back in February this year that the community of New South Wales would answer that clarion call to get vaccinated and put their arms forward in such great numbers, and they have. Today the double-dosed figure is more than 90 per cent; that is amazing. I thank the entire New South Wales community for what it is doing on that front. In keeping themselves safe they are also keeping their family, friends and community safe, and are getting us back to the way of life that we all hungered for for so long.
I thank the member for Lake Macquarie for raising this issue. He is not the only one who has raised this issue with me. I should acknowledge that some other members from the Hunter have raised the issue as well. I received an open letter from the Hunter General Practitioners Association, which hopefully the member has seen. The letter, which is dated 5 November, highlights the challenges that the member is talking about. It concerns me and the State Government that the funding arrangements that are supposed to be there for GPs are not there from the Federal Government. That is a real challenge for all of us. As the member highlighted in his question, if GPs are not getting adequately funded then, of course, people will tend to go to emergency departments even though they may not have an emergency—it may be something that could have been managed very well by a GP. The Hunter General Practitioners Association highlights that it has provided these services for about 20 years. I will quote from the letter, which states:
Static funding from successive Federal Governments, the failure of successive Federal Governments to adequately index Medicare Rebates, and the withdrawal of funding support by the Local Health District indicate that all parties are at best short-sighted; and at worst, do not sufficiently value the after hours healthcare of Novocastrians.
I emphasise to GPs, and to the member for Lake Macquarie and his Hunter region colleagues, that the New South Wales Government values GPs, which is why the local health district has been, if you like, filling the gap and putting some money in because, since 2013, the then Labor Government but also followed by our colleagues in the Liberal-Nationals have not been increasing the Medicare rebates as GPs need to reflect their provision of medical services. The costs have gone up but the rebates have not. As I said, it was started in 2013 under the Federal Labor Government. The Coalition Government has now changed that and is increasing it, but nowhere near enough to be able to provide the services.
One of the members from the Hunter also wrote to me asking me to write to the Federal Minister. I emphasise that I have done that. I emphasise to him that these services cannot be cut. They must not be cut. They must get adequate funding. The New South Wales Government, of course, will continue to do what it can to provide services. I know in some hospitals GPs are given free accommodation, a free place to practise. But, at the end of the day, they also need to get the appropriate Medicare rebates. That is the big issue. As the Hunter General Practitioners Association said, "Once GP access after hours—GPAAH—clinics close, they will not open again." That is a concern for all of us. I acknowledge that it is not just the member for Lake Macquarie as an Independent member or his colleagues on the Labor side who have written to me about the same issue. It is also very much the Liberal side in New South Wales that is concerned about this issue, hence the Government's letter to Minister Hunt demanding that he look at these issues and try to increase the appropriate funding.
Website: Read the Parliamentary Hansard here