July 21, 2022

THE HON. PAT CONROY, MEMBER FOR SHORTLAND: Good afternoon everyone. I’m Pat Conroy, and I’m the Federal Member for Shortland, and I am joined by my parliamentary colleagues and good friends Meryl Swanson, the fabulous Member for Paterson, and Dan Repacholi, the not so newly elected Member for Hunter. So welcome to the beautiful electorate of Shortland. We are also joined by Dr Lee Fong who’s Secretary of the Hunter GP Association.

And we’re here today to make an announcement. We’re here today to announce the fulfilment of one of the very important promises that the Australian Labor Party took to the last election because it’s one thing to make commitments, it’s another to deliver on them, and we are delivering on one of those commitments today.

Along with cost of living, adequate health services was the other most important issue that we campaigned on at the recent federal election. And in our area, we’ve seen massive shortages of general practitioners, massive issues facing Medicare, and the GP shortage was driven by many factors, but one of the most critical was the fact that government scholarship doctors – Australians trained at Australian universities through government scholarships – and overseas trained doctors were prevented from working in our region because of a policy decision of the previous federal government. And at the last election, we committed to reverse that to make this area a Distribution Priority Area again, to allow overseas trained doctors and Commonwealth bonded doctors to return to our region, and I’m really happy to be announcing with Meryl Swanson and Dan Repacholi that that has occurred, and the entire Hunter region is a Distribution Priority Area which means that our surgeries here will be able to hire internationally trained doctors again, and what’s called Commonwealth bonded doctors. This will help ease the crisis that is going on right now where many, many families can’t get in to see a doctor.

So with those introductory remarks, I’ll hand over to Meryl and then Dan to talk about the impact in their particular electorates. 

MERYL SWANSON, MEMBER FOR PATERSON: Thanks Minister – and it feels great to be saying that – and welcome to Dr Fong and my colleague the Member for Hunter, Dan Repacholi. The priority area is something that is so important to everyone who lives in the Hunter, and it’s good to see that Labor is delivering on our promises. The Hunter is a priority for Labor. The people of the Hunter and their health are a priority for Labor. So what we are going to see now is that more doctors – bonded doctors and well trained, overseas doctors – who want to come and work here in the Hunter are going to be able to do that.

And at the end of the day, we’ve seen a pandemic where health has been at the forefront for everyone. People are still really concerned, not only about the coronavirus, but also about their health in general. They want to know if their kids are sick, if they don’t feel well, that they can see a doctor. We all want to be able to get to the doctor when we can, and that’s why this is so important. And the other thing for me is that in areas like Maitland where we’ve got a new hospital, we’ve seen emergency waiting times blown out, we want to take the pressure off those emergency waiting rooms, and that’s what this policy will help to do. So if people are able to get an appointment with a doctor within a few days rather than a few weeks, they’re not going to be as inclined to turn up to Emergency. So this is a great step, and I’m just particularly proud to be part of an Albanese Government that is delivering better health outcomes for the Hunter. Thanks for that. 

DAN REPACHOLI, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Thank you Meryl, thank you Minister Pat Conroy. Welcome everyone to here. What a fantastic announcement this is for the Hunter. We’ve been doorknocking, we’ve been talking to thousands of people in the campaign, now we are in government, and now we are making changes. We have made a change to this situation here with doctors and GPs – the lack of them, the shortage of them. We have made a massive change that will make a massive difference to people’s lives. And that’s what Labor does. Labor does this, and Labor will continue to do this. So thank you to everyone who voted for Labor in our region here. We are making things happen, and this is a fantastic thing that has been done for our area. Thank you very much. 

DR LEE FONG, HUNTER GP ASSOCIATION: Just yesterday in my clinical work, there were a couple of patients that I needed to get in to see their usual GP on an urgent basis, and the next available appointment for both of these patients with their usual GP was more than a month away. And for these urgent conditions, this was a problem. So that’s just symptomatic I think of the widespread challenges that face our region in terms of accessing timely healthcare. So we do have a significant GP workforce problem in our region. There is a lot more work that needs to be done. The reasons for this shortage are complex, and there’s a lot more work that needs to be done. But we’re very pleased that the current federal government has demonstrated a commitment to primary care, a desire to work to improve primary care, and as part of this, this announcement today is a step to make a difference. It’s a step in the right direction, and the Hunter GP Association welcomes that. So thank you to our local members and to the federal government for making this promise come to life.

CONROY: Thank you Dr Fong, and I just want to finish by thanking the Hunter GP Association for their great advocacy for primary healthcare in our region. They are a very strong advocate for health in our region, and the strength of the Association is that they are always prepared to engage with political leaders of all political parties. Their concern is advocating for better health outcomes for our region. So, happy to answer any questions.

REPORTER: The Rural Doctors Association has been extremely critical today of the expansion of the DPA classification saying that it’s no longer fit for purpose because expanding it so much, it’s going to attract doctors to larger regional centres and metro areas rather than remote areas. What do you say to that criticism?

CONROY: Well I understand their point of view and Minister Mark Butler, the Minister for Health has made statements that we are looking at what initiatives we can undertake to improve GP services in rural and remote areas, but we shouldn’t be penalising our region for a problem that is occurring in other places. So to give you an example of how extreme this is, Swansea Medical Practice moved into a brand-new medical centre at the start of this year. They had one clinic room completely empty every day of the week, their books are completely full, because they couldn’t get access to well qualified overseas trained doctors and what’s called Commonwealth bonded doctors.

We have a GP crisis here. We are still working through the issues that Dr Fong has highlighted. This won’t solve everything, but it will help, and the families of the Hunter, there’s 700,000 people who live in our area, they have an absolute right to get in and see a doctor. So this is why this is an important move, and I’ll make this point about the previous government: they did not care about our region. When we made this announcement in front of Windale Medical Practice with the then Shadow Minister Mark Butler, the response from the then Coalition Government was that there are plenty of health services in the Hunter which is absolute toss. So we understand the concerns of rural GPs. We will work with them, but the people of the Hunter deserve this. We made a solid election commitment which we are now delivering on today.

REPORTER: I know it’s not your portfolio, but the RACGP has called for a 10 per cent increase in Medicare rebates for many consultation levels. Is your government prepared to look at that request?

CONROY: Oh look, I’m not going to make a practice of commenting on other portfolios, but Minister Butler has made it very clear that we are looking at the complex interaction of issues that are affecting GP recruitment and retention and they are significant. I’ll make the point that the GP pay freeze that effectively lasted for all of the previous government’s time in office was a key factor. When you hold the pay of a profession down, you’re going to have trouble attracting people, and that was a critical driver of some of these GP issues.

REPORTER: Dr Fong, would you like to comment on the Medicare rebate issue?

DR FONG: Oh we know that Medicare rebates haven’t kept pace as was just said by Pat. It is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed. To the degree and the pace to which it is addressed, well it can’t happen soon enough. So I look forward to the work of the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce which is being set up by the current government, and I look forward to some positive outcomes for primary care.

REPORTER: GP Access After Hours, any movement on that? It’s only early days of the government we understand, but are we any closer?

CONROY: Yeah absolutely. The commitment to restore the funding to the GP After Hours service – and I’ll invite Dan and Meryl to make comments if they’d like to on this – was another critical part of our health announcements that we made at the last election. So I am delighted to say that the Department of Health is already engaging with the Primary Health Network on how we restore that funding. The October Budget will be a primary mechanism for us to fund most of our election commitments, and I am very optimistic – very confident in fact – that the restoration of funding to the GP Access After Hours service will be contained within the October Budget.

REPORTER: Would you say by the end of the year hopefully?

CONROY: Well that will depend on the consultations between the Department and the Primary Health Network about how we deliver that funding. But as I said, I am very optimistic that the funding will be contained within the October Budget which is the first opportunity for the new Labor Government to actually fund our election commitments.

REPORTER: We’re going to see COVID cases peak in a matter of weeks. Are you confident that the current staffing levels across the region will be able to hold up?

CONROY: I might invite Dr Fong to make a comment, but it’s really important to make two quick points. One, we need to listen to the health advice, and that’s what this government does. When the health advice changes, the Government’s position reflects that changed advice. And secondly, we need to recognise the extreme pressure that our entire health system is under at the moment, particularly frontline healthcare with this resurgence of COVID cases. So we need to be respectful to the workforce, and we need to make sure they’re looked after. My wife’s a nurse, and the absolute worse thing that we can see is people abusing healthcare professionals, whether it’s doctors, nurses, frontline reception staff. And so I just urge everyone to be calm and respectful of the workers who quite frankly are risking their health right now to look after us.

DR FONG: Look we are facing extreme pressure as Pat just said. There’s – are we going to be able to face this? Yes, I think we are. We’re going to get through it, we always have, and I don’t think it’s going to be any different this time. Is it going to be hard? Absolutely. Should everyone pull out all of their stops to do their bit? Yes. So to help alleviate the pressure, the messages I am about to give you, they’re not new. If you’re eligible for a COVID booster, get the booster. If you haven’t had a flu vax, go and get a flu vax. If you can socially distance, do it. If you’re inside and in an environment where you can’t socially distance, wear a mask. It’s not that hard.

So these are measures we can all take but as a community, if we come together, put a bit of effort in, we’re going to get through it, and I have a lot of confidence in that, but we need everyone to play their part.