Around 7 million Australians live or work in regional Australia.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), on average, Australians living in rural and remote areas have shorter lives, higher levels of disease and injury, and poorer access to and use of health services, compared with people living in metropolitan areas.
The AIHW, in its 2019 web report on rural and remote health, states that people living in rural and remote areas have higher rates of hospitalisations, mortality, injury and poorer access to, and use of, primary health care services, compared with those living in metropolitan areas.
As a voice of regional health care, ARHG firmly believes it is not acceptable that people in regional areas should be subject to, or accept, poorer health outcomes simply because of where they live.
Regional Australians continue to face significant barriers when it comes to accessing the health care they need. Lack of services that can only be overcome by extensive travel means additional costs simply to access basic care. There is no other conclusion than a significant geographic divide runs through this country when it comes to health care.
ARHG has developed a suite of policies to address regional inequities. The policies are:
- maintaining a Federal Minister for Regional Health and elevating it to a Cabinet portfolio
- establishing a federal expert working group to evaluate and develop strategies to incentivise and encourage health professionals to work in regional areas
- reinstate the full 30 per cent means-tested private health rebate for people on low and middle incomes.
Maintaining a Federal Minister for Regional Health and elevating it to a Cabinet portfolio
The current Cabinet of the Federal Government contains the portfolios of regionalisation, regional communications and regional education. This demonstrates an understanding that issues that specifically apply to regional Australia should be presented in Cabinet.
However, the fact that regional health remains as an outer ministry portfolio is a serious oversight, placing the value and importance of addressing specific regional health issues as, arguably, not as important as other issues that impact regional areas.
Having a Cabinet portfolio will boost public confidence in policy settings designed to tackle regional health service inequities and ensure such issues are tackled as a priority.
Establishing a federal expert working group to evaluate and develop strategies to incentivise and encourage health professionals to work in regional areas
Recruiting and, importantly, retaining doctors to regional and rural areas remains a significant challenge. A lack of access to doctors undoubtedly contributes to poorer health outcomes.
A working group at federal government level can explore ways of removing the barriers to health professionals commencing practice in regional areas. While there are programs and incentives in place, a broader consideration of removing the relative disadvantage between regional medical practitioners and their metropolitan contemporaries who benefit from higher patient throughput, access to new and emerging technology, access to research and education and best practice procedures.
Reinstate the full 30 per cent means-tested private health rebate for people on low and middle incomes
The private health rebate was initially introduced to cover 30 per cent of the cost of a private health policy, putting private health within the means of more people and reducing their reliance on the wholly taxpayer-funded public health system.
The rebate has failed to keep pace with increasing health service costs, meaning it now covers less than 25 per cent of the cost of a policy for low- and middle- income earners. In effect, that shortfall becomes a disincentive for people to either invest in, or maintain, private health insurance.
People accessing the private care pathway inherently reduce the burden on an already overstretched public hospital system. If this system is not well supported by the private system, increased demand on Australia’s publicly funded system may see it fail, particularly for emergency department treatment and elective surgery.
©Australian Regional Health Group 2022
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