It's often said that we have a universal healthcare system in Australia, but we don't. The further you live outside a big city, the worse your access to health care is likely to be. In some rural towns, there is no GP anymore. If you're diagnosed with diabetes, heart disease or another chronic condition, your quality of life is likely to be worse, and your life expectancy shorter, if you live in the outer suburbs, the regions or the bush.
I raise this because, in the electorate I represent on the Central Coast of New South Wales, we have an emerging GP crisis. The Central Coast is a popular place for young families and older people to live, but it's also a place where GPs books are closed and patients are waiting weeks for routine appointments. In the words of Dr Sachin Choudhary, who manages two practices on the Central Coast including the Lake Haven medical centre, 'We are in crisis and we need help.' Yet the Central Coast is not classified by this government as a distribution priority area for GPs, which means that recruiting and retaining GPs in our region is tough. I recently met with Belinda Field, CEO of Yerin Aboriginal Health Services in Wyong. Belinda is increasingly concerned about the challenges their health service is facing in recruiting and retaining GPs and the impact this is having on their patients. Yerin has 4,000 active patients and a four-week wait for routine appointments, and, in a region with one of the fastest-growing Aboriginal populations in Australia, they can't take on new patients. They're struggling to get by with eight part-time GPs. Belinda told me, 'The current classifications are a farce; we actually do have a shortage of GPs on the Central Coast,' and Belinda believes the rules must change to support GPs to work in our Aboriginal medical services.
I've also heard from Theresa Mason. Theresa manages the Central Coast Community Women's Health Centre. It was founded in 1976 and, for over four decades, has been providing support to local women through counselling, advocacy and legal advice at its centres in Wyoming, Wyong and Woy Woy. Until recently, the Central Coast Community Women's Health Centre also had three part-time GPs at their Wyoming clinic providing specialist women's health care. In Theresa's words: 'Our women's health GP clinic is a safe place for vulnerable women. Our services are provided by women for women, and 70 per cent of our services are bulk-billed. They are affordable.' But the centre, which receives referrals from across the Central Coast from women in crisis who are often really vulnerable, has had to advise patients that, from the end of this month, from the end of March, they will not have any doctors at the clinic, and they can't offer any future appointments until they can recruit replacement doctors. According to Theresa, they've been advertising for over 12 months and only managed to secure one GP who left a short time later. Theresa says others have been interested but only if the Central Coast was a distribution priority area. They are currently working with the primary health network to apply for the Area of Need Program as, without female GPs, they can't provide their specialist services, leaving, in Theresa's words, 'vulnerable women falling through the cracks'. This is a clinic which had 4,351 visits in 2019-20 of which nearly 30 per cent were for emotional and mental health, and the clinic now can't see patients. It's not good enough and it's not safe.
This shortage of GPs also impacts affordability. Across Australia, out-of-pocket costs for GP appointments have increased by 37 per cent since this government came to office. This is being felt by many people in my community, especially those who can least afford it. Dr Sachin Choudhary, who I mentioned earlier, urgently needs to recruit two GPs at each of the clinics that he manages. He wrote to me: 'Much to the disappointment of our GPs, who used to pride themselves in offering services at no cost to patients given the area's low socioeconomic demographic, we are gradually introducing co-payments to patients who can barely afford to pay.' I have written to the health minister this week to raise these urgent concerns. In the words of Theresa Mason, 'There is a critical shortage of GPs on the Central Coast.' As Belinda Field, the CEO of the Yerin Aboriginal Health Services, said, 'The current classifications are a farce.' And, as Dr Choudhary says, 'We are in crisis and we need help.'
Our community deserves better. As an MP and as a pharmacist, I'm calling on the government to act now to review these classifications and to urgently improve access to primary care in communities like mine. If people don't have access to GPs, they end up in crisis in ED. The cost to them and to our health system is too much. It must change. The government has to act now.