The National Rural Health Alliance is optimistic that the re-appointment of Greg Hunt as Federal Health Minister following the Coalition’s win in the Federal election will be good for rural health. Greg Hunt knows the portfolio and that poor accessibility to healthcare services in rural, regional and remote areas is what knocks Australia off top position in the world’s best healthcare system rankings. Wouldn’t an ambitious Federal Health Minister want to claim top ranking? Plus he represents the rural seat of Flinders on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. It’s hardly Mt Isa or Murchison but it is non-metropolitan.
Prior to the election the Alliance posted a table which compared the policies of the three major contenders, the Coalition, Labor and the Greens in response to our election charter priorities. We work with whoever is in power and were pleased that all three contenders had key people at the National Rural Health Conference in March– Catherine King (then Shadow Minister for Health and Medicare) for Labor, Bridget McKenzie (then Minister responsible for rural health) for the Coalition and Party leader and former GP Richard di Natale for the Greens. We were especially impressed that the Greens took the time to develop a Rural Health policy statement.
That said, there is no commitment from the newly elected Government, yet at least, to create a new National Rural Health Strategy. Its current Stronger Rural Health Strategy was a title given to a program to fund 3,000 more GPs and 3,000 more nurses and allied health professionals into rural areas. This program simply allows GPs to claim a cost offset for employing practice-based nurses and, for the first time, allied health professionals. It is far too early to know what the impact of the incentive will be but it is but it will certainly not address the full extent of the workforce crisis we have with these professions currently.
Nor is there a Federal Minister for Rural Health. Nationals’ MP Victorian Senator Bridget McKenzie held this portfolio in the previous government but the title was deleted in the August 2018 Ministerial shake-up when the Liberals dumped Malcolm Turnbull and appointed Scott Morrison as party leader. Despite this, Greg Hunt as a senior Cabinet Minister is expected to have considerable weight in the Cabinet.
Announcing his new ministry, Prime Minister Scott Morrison signalled that Indigenous and young people’s health would be a priority.
“Greg Hunt will lead the charge on our plan to combat youth suicide and youth mental health in this country. He will do that of course as Minister for Health, where he’s done an outstanding job. Greg will pull together an implementation forum of the nation’s experts in coming months, dealing with both youth and Indigenous mental health issues and working through our plan to deliver that on the ground”, he said.
Greg Hunt outlined his priorities as Health Minister as follows:
“Our task as a Government will be to support our patients and medical community in the ongoing implementation of the Long Term National Health Plan with its emphasis on guaranteeing Medicare and support for our hospitals. In particular I will focus on delivering new medicines through the PBS, the deep shared passion with the Prime Minister of further strengthening our support for mental health and in particular youth mental health and suicide prevention and delivering our 10 year Medical Research Strategic Plan.”
Queenslander Stuart Robert is the New Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Mr Morrison said Mr Robert would be responsible, with him, to ensure that 500,000 Australians will be able to access the services of the NDIS over the next five years.
In Victoria, two MPs with strong backgrounds in rural health and the welfare sector were elected. Helen Haines, a nurse, midwife, health administrator and rural health researcher, was elected as the Independent Member for Indi in the north east of the state, and in the Mallee in north western Victoria, Nationals MP social worker Dr Anne Webster was elected. It’s hoped they will bring a strong focus to rural health and be allies for the rural health sector.
So where does this leave rural health?
For an insight on what the Coalition promised on the Alliance’s four top priorities – improving Indigenous health; improving access to healthcare, especially by funding more rural allied health professionals into rural Australia; expanding research into the health needs of rural Australia; and creating a new National Rural Health Strategy, go to www.ruralhealth.org.au/election19.