Senate debates

Tuesday, 28 November 2023


Tasmania: Health Care

7:55 pm

Photo of Tammy TyrrellTammy Tyrrell (Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie Network) Share this | | Hansard source

Small GP clinics in rural and regional areas of Tassie are collapsing at a rapid pace. In the last few years, we've lost clinics at Brighton, Evandale, Westbury and East Devonport, and this year we came close to losing clinics in Bridgewater and St Marys. Clinics are shutting down not only because we don't have enough GPs to go around but also because they are increasingly for-profit businesses owned by venture capital companies. They need these clinics to make money and, if they don't, corporations pull the plug, then the community is left without access to health care and no-one has any idea on how to fix it. That's what almost happened with Green Point Medical Centre in Bridgewater. When the news first broke that Green Point would shut down, politicians descended on the site like it was election time in a marginal seat. The state pollies said the federal government need to exit. The federal pollies said it wasn't up to one government and we all need to work together. Not one of these pollies put a solid idea on the table about how to actually fix the problem. They just hoped somebody would step in to fill the void. We got lucky that a provider did step in. But what if they didn't?

We need a solution for the next town whose GP clinic closes and the one after that, a solution that actually fixes what is causing the problem. What is causing the problem is actually simple; it is money. Doctors working in corporate clinics serve two masters—their patients and their investors and not necessarily in that order. If they spend too much time looking after patients at or below cost, they risk losing their investor's money, which puts the clinic at risk. If they look after the investor instead of the patient, the patient doesn't get the quality care they might need. We don't want to see general practice run like this.

It shouldn't be up to foreign investors to decide who in Australia gets primary care. I know what it is like to not be able to afford health care when you need it. I went to the same family clinic in Ulvie all my life. Then, when my kids were toddlers, the clinic suddenly stopped bulk-billing for kids. I understood that it was a business decision and they did what they had to do to keep everything running, but I was a young mum. I couldn't afford to pay for the appointments. When your kids at that age, three or four years old, they have to go to the doctors a lot. The costs add up really quickly. I was lucky I was able to switch to a different clinic in Ulvie but I'm not sure what I would have done if there wasn't another clinic to go to. If you are in a rural part of Tasmania, you don't have the option. If your clinic closes, there aren't others around. The next closest clinic is probably an hour away, so hopefully you have a car to get there because you can't rely on public transport. The ones that are kind of close to your town are likely not taking on new patients.

People in regional areas rely on these clinics and the corporations running them are about profit, not people. Because corporations are getting wary of investing in regional areas, we are leaving to private clinics to fill the gap but we know there aren't enough GPs to do this. In private clinics where the GPs take on the financial responsibility of the practice, it is in addition to their day job of, well, being a GP. That's why the federal government has a role to play here.

If a regional area is at risk of losing their clinic because corporate investors are pulling the pin, the federal government should step in to run the clinic—take over the lease, pay the staff, keep the doors open—and put the clinic up for sale at the same time. If someone comes and buys it—great—the federal government steps out. If nobody buys it, the federal government runs the clinic until someone else sets up a new one in the region. It isn't designed to be a permanent fix; it is a temporary measure to make sure the community has health care, no matter what the market says.

I have no issue with private investors backing clinics but I do have an issue with private investors deciding whether you can see a doctor next month. Everybody should have access to health care, no matter where they live. I don't want to be another politician pointing out the bad things with no real solution to offer, so this is what I am putting on the table before any other GP clinics are at risk shutting down.