Central Coast GP Shortage Continues

Central Coast GP Shortage Continues Main Image

12 May 2021

I rise to speak on this important motion moved by my friend and colleague Dr Freelander. As others have done, I express my sincere gratitude to Dr Freelander for the work he has done across his working life in paediatrics, in his regional community and in his contributions to this house. This motion is important because, under this government, far too many Australians, including many in my electorate on the Central Coast of New South Wales, can't get health care when they need it. Every Australian deserves quality health care—wherever they are born, live or grow old. That's why the Whitlam government introduced Medibank, which, after being wound back by the Liberals, was re-established as Medicare under Prime Minister Hawke.

Under the Morrison government, universal healthcare, the foundation that underpins Medicare, is being eroded. Access to care is increasingly being determined by where you live and what you earn. The government's own Institute of Health and Welfare has found that people who earn less, live in insecure housing or get by with insecure work have difficulty accessing care, and that people living outside of big cities often have poorer health, made worse by longer waiting times, higher out-of-pocket costs and a shortage of healthcare workers.

As Dr Freelander and my colleagues have said, out-of-pocket costs have soared in the eight long years the coalition has been in office. The average out-of-pocket cost to visit a GP has increased by 29.6 per cent, while the out-of-pocket cost to visit a specialist has almost doubled, and costs for cancer patients needing radiotherapy have nearly tripled. At the same time, wages have stalled, so people are finding it harder to meet these costs for essential care.

Out-of-pocket costs are not the only barrier to care. In March, I raised the acute shortage of general practitioners on the Central Coast in the House. The community and local GPs have described this shortage as a crisis. I wrote to Minister Hunt about the impact of large parts of the Central Coast not being classified as distribution priority areas. The reply from the minister's office stated, 'Major capital cities and metropolitan areas have high levels of primary care services compared to regional and remote locations.' If the government know this, why aren't they doing something about it? The reply went on to say, 'Lake Haven and surrounding areas of the northern Central Coast are non-DPA because they have been assessed as receiving adequate GP services for the needs of the community.' So why did a senior GP with a large multisite practice tell me only last week that they turn away 200 patients a day between their four clinics because they can't meet the demand? Just last week, another practice in my electorate, in Wyong, was forced to close its books following the retirement of a GP. They sent a message to their patients: 'Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond our control, our GPs within our practice have no capacity to take additional patients. Therefore, we are unable to offer you ongoing care.'

The shortage means some local GPs are working 10-hour days in their practices, only to follow up with shifts at the Bridges After Hours GP Clinic on the grounds of Wyong hospital. If the Bridges After Hours GP Clinic is overwhelmed—and I'm told that sometimes they have to close their doors to patients at eight because they won't be able to see them by the time they finish, after 10—patients end up in the emergency department of Wyong hospital, sometimes waiting for up to 12 hours. I worked at Wyong hospital as a senior pharmacist in mental health for almost 10 years. Staff at the hospital are dedicated, hardworking and capable, but they are under enormous strain.

Given this crisis, I invited the shadow minister for health, Mark Butler, to the Central Coast last week to hear from local GPs in a roundtable. This week, we've again written to Minister Hunt urging him to act. I understand from my correspondence with the minister that the next DPA update is scheduled for 1 July this year and, if circumstances in communities change substantially, this will be reflected in the update. I call on the minister again: they must be changed. I call on the minister to act now to make the Central Coast and other regional communities like ours a priority area so everyone can get the care they deserve when they need it.

We know that if people delay care—I know this as a pharmacist and as a local MP—they get worse. They end up in emergency departments, overwhelming our hospital system. It's not in their interests, it's not in the interests of our healthcare system and it's not in the interests of our economy. I call on the health minister to act now, to act in the interests of our community and to make the Central Coast an area of priority.