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GP crisis on radar

Monday, 21st March, 2016

By Darrin Manuel

The federal government has declared it is putting significant effort into combatting dwindling GP numbers in the outback.

The response comes after local GP Dr Ramu Nachiappan said Broken Hill could soon be facing a GP crisis due to an exodus of doctors from the city in the last month.

He said he had been informed that up to nine doctors had left due to community factors, a lack of government support for the bush, and the mounting pressure caused by the government’s ongoing freeze on Medicare rebates (bulk billing).

But federal Health minister Sussan Ley yesterday defended the government’s track record on rural health, stating that a number of programs and incentives had been put in place to attract doctors to the outback and encourage them to stay there.

“The Australian Government recognises that people living outside the major cities can face barriers in accessing the same range of health services as those in urban areas and is committed to getting doctors to the areas that they’re most needed,” she said.

“In response to this need, the Government is providing a range of initiatives to improve access to health services for people living in rural, regional and remote areas through measures supporting frontline service delivery and improving service accessibility. 

“One example of this is the General Practice Rural Incentives Program which offers incentives to encourage medical practitioners to move to and remain in a rural, regional or remote area.

“Last year the Government sharpened the focus of this program to ensure that the support goes to those areas most in need. Additionally, a single consolidated rural locum programme will take effect from 1 April 2016 to provide efficiencies and consistency in administration.”

Ms Ley added that efforts had also been redoubled to better track data on where medical specialists were needed most in the outback.

“Earlier this year the District of Workforce Shortage classification system, currently used by the Department of Health, was redesigned to allow a more accurate determination of areas experiencing (medical) workforce need.

“The previous District of Workforce Shortage classification system relied on outdated population data, and wasn’t accurately reflecting the workforce needs in towns that have experienced population growth.  

“The Government listened to the rural stakeholders and we’ve made the updates necessary to ensure we are able to get doctors to where they’re needed most.

“Updates for general practice now take place annually to provide greater stability and assurance to practices and other employers seeking to recruit doctors.”

Dr Nachiappan had also called for regional areas to be exempt from the current Medicare rebate freeze, however a statement from Ms Ley’s office said rural areas were already receiving preferential treatment when it comes to bulk billing.

It states that GPs who bulk bill eligible patients in a rural, regional or remote area are paid a bulk billing incentive of $9.25 per service - $3.10 higher than the bulk billing incentive paid per service in metropolitan areas.

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