Monday, 15 September 2008
Page Electorate: Health Funding
Tonight I am speaking on two particular health initiatives underway in Page: the upgrade of operating theatres and the emergency department at Grafton Base Hospital; and a GP superclinic and a radiotherapy unit at Lismore Base Hospital, or more specifically the fast-tracking of the latter—health related issues that affect people in Page and health in general.
Health is something that I have quite a passion for, having long advocated, lobbied and pressured to ensure that we get the health services we seek and indeed deserve, which I am sure you seek too, Mr Deputy Speaker Washer, given your other profession. I did this during the election campaign last year and have continued to do this since I was elected. In fact, I have been doing it for many years, firstly serving as director of Lismore Base Hospital, being a founding member of the then North Coast breast screening program, becoming president and serving in that role for a number of years; and having a wide involvement in many health initiatives, many firsts, including the issue of treatment for homeless people, a very challenging group of people to get health services to but a group that we still have to be very focused on in the delivery of health services.
All governments have for a long time needed to do better on health. It is a big-ticket item and is becoming more so. With the technological medical changes, we face the increasing longevity of our population and the lower age of viability, all issues impacting on our health system. Having had significant experience of health systems outside Australia as well as in Australia, I can say we have a pretty good one, but it can always do with improvement. That is what good policy is about and that is what the Rudd Labor government is about: it is about good policy and continued engagement, which bring continued improvement. It needs a federal government to be actively engaged in health policy. I am not letting the states and territories—in my case, New South Wales—off the hook, but it is well documented that the previous government ripped a lot of money out of health, most tellingly in the area of Australian healthcare agreement funding to our public hospitals, which meant a loss of about $1 billion, most of that in New South Wales. You do not need to be a health economist to work out what that meant in services.
The current Australian healthcare agreement has been extended for 12 months, with an extra billion dollars going to public hospitals, reversing the trend of decline in the Commonwealth share of public funding. Importantly, for the first time it allows, in recognition that primary and acute care cannot be separated, the healthcare agreements to go beyond public hospitals to include primary and preventive and aged care.
So what is the government doing in terms of health? I can report that it is delivering on all of its election commitments. It has established the Health and Hospitals Fund, to the tune of $10 billion. That will support strategic investments in health to equip Australia’s health and hospital system for the future. Significantly, it will drive the provision of health and hospital facilities and equipment as part of the government’s health reform agenda. It will fund or invest in medical technology and equipment and in major medical research facilities and equipment, including projects and facilities that will better support links between hospital based clinical research and high-quality clinical practice.
The health needs of people in rural and regional areas such as my area have their own unique characteristics but they also have characteristics in common with the health needs of all Australians. In July, the Rudd government established the Office of Rural Health in the Department of Health and Ageing. It will drive much-needed rural health reform, and a lot of that will be in response to the findings of the audit of the health workforce in rural and regional Australia which revealed, surprisingly, that the figures the previous government was using regarding medical health workforce issues were 1991 census figures—a bit outdated, I have to say. The office will also review the Australian government’s 60 targeted and disparate rural health programs, among other things.
The government has restored the Commonwealth dental health scheme to the tune of some $290 million so that an additional one million or so Australians will get consultation and treatment. People in my area say to me, ‘Janelle, can I get my dentures?’ and in our case I can say, ‘Yes,’ because this means an additional $2 million will flow to the North Coast Area Health Service. That will impact very positively on dental waiting lists. The funding is worked out on a dental RDF, or resource distribution formula. Even though the North Coast Area Health Service resource distribution formula is still lower than it should be—but moving up in both general medical and dental—the money for dental will be based on what the RDF should be for dental, and that is good news for the people of Page and the North Coast. When the Howard government came to government in 1996, they ceased the Commonwealth Dental Health Program and that created a lot of problems that have lingered on for the past decade. There is a lot of catch-up to be done, not only in my area of New South Wales but right across Australia. The other initiative is funding of up to $150 for families who receive family tax benefit A so that their young people from 12 to 17 years of age can get annual dental health checks.
In mental health, there is an extra $50 million to strengthen mental health services, with approximately $20 million going to help prevent suicide. Another initiative is in men’s health. The Rudd Labor government, under Minister Roxon, has introduced a national men’s health policy. That is a first for Australia at the national level, and it is another election commitment being delivered. I was able to launch that policy locally in Lismore with the local men’s helpline. I note the debate that took place before in this chamber and also that it is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. Last week I had the privilege to spend some real quality time with three key members of the Clarence Valley Prostate Cancer Support Group. We got together to promote the prostate cancer phone-in last Thursday. We need to develop more awareness of this cancer that is devastating to men.
I raised two local initiatives at the beginning of my speech, the first one being at the Grafton Base Hospital. During the election campaign the Labor opposition and I gave a commitment to fund the upgrade of the operating theatres and the emergency department at Grafton Base Hospital. I am pleased to report that planning for the three operating theatres that will be upgraded is nearly completed and that we have a timetable in place.
There is a project definition plan which should be completed by October and signed off; the architectural design completed by around May 2009 and tender documents issued around the same time; development applications approved by about June-July; construction to commence around August-September; and then operations should commence by October-November 2010. I am really pleased to be able to report that because Grafton Base Hospital has needed those upgrades for a long time and the community has waited a long time for it. The community is quite excited that it is going to happen but still want to see the first sod of earth turned so that they know it is a reality with their eyes. They know it is now because of all the planning that has happened. I am pleased that that was in the budget.
Lismore Base Hospital is redeveloping and building an integrated cancer care centre. Again, during the election campaign there was a commitment given to go with the $8 million that had already been allocated by the previous federal government but to match it by $7 million so that the upgrade of the radiotherapy unit could be fast-tracked and it would come on line in 2010, with the first patients going through by about June 2010. So the $8 million plus the $7 million—a $15 million commitment in all—will allow patients to be treated in their own area. They will not have to travel to the Gold Coast or to Brisbane and suffer not only the inconveniences but also all the emotional trauma that that brings in that time of treating the disease.