I rise to speak in support of the motion moved by my friend and colleague, the member for Newcastle, and to join my colleagues across the Hunter and the Central Coast in opposing these outrageous cuts to health care in regional Australia.
People in regional communities across Australia are fed up with this Government's cuts to health care. They've spent years slashing funding to our hospitals and GP services; they've cut Medicare rebates for hundreds of orthopaedic, cardiac and general surgeries; and they've sat on their hands when it comes to the GP shortage, which is in crisis across regional Australia.
Because of this, we're seeing another major GP service being forced to close. The GP Access After Hours service at the Mater, just north of my community on the Central Coast of New South Wales, will close its doors on Christmas Eve—all because of cuts to bulk-billing and Medicare rebates under this Government.
The GP Access After Hours service is one-of-a-kind service in regional communities. It triages patients to the right place at the right time for the care they need. They take the pressure off emergency departments and they always take care of the health of locals. This is a service that deserves the Government's support, not cuts. But, instead of backing the service with more funding, this Government is standing by while the doors are being closed at the Mater and the other services are having to cut their hours at Belmont, John Hunter, Maitland and the polyclinic at Toronto.
Even the New South Wales health minister, Brad Hazzard, has written to the federal minister asking for more funding for this service to be kept open. He said, 'You would be aware of these additional pressures that the state and territory health systems are under as a result of the pandemic. I seek your immediate assessment of the circumstances and commitment to ongoing funding to enable the service to continue operating under its current arrangements.' This is from the New South Wales health minister, Minister Hazzard, pleading to Minister Hunt. But instead of acting, what does the government do? It ignores responsibility and shifts the blame.
The community I represent on the Central Coast of New South Wales is under the same pressure. We've been facing a critical shortage of GPs for years. Locals have to wait weeks for routine appointments, practices have been forced to close their books and GPs are exhausted through the pandemic, because this government refuses to recognise my community as a distribution priority area and refuses to take responsibility for the health care of people living outside of big cities. That's why, with the help of my Labor colleagues, we successively called for a Senate inquiry into GP shortages. Our communities need answers and they want solutions, not more blame-shifting.
I made my own submission to this inquiry and so did countless locals—people like Dr Brad Cranney. Dr Cranney is a senior GP who runs four general practices in the community that I represent on the north end of the coast. Ten years ago, he had 32 GPs on the books. Now he only has 25, and he's lost two more who'll be moving soon to Queensland. In his submission to the inquiry, he said that patients in the community are waiting weeks to get an appointment with their GP and they are turning away 60 patients a day. And that was before COVID-19. Dr Cranney says the pandemic has only made things worse.
Then there's Dr Shamila Beattie, who runs her own clinic in Blue Haven in the northern end of the Central Coast. This clinic serves around 6,000 patients in our community, but they're struggling to keep up with the demand because we're not considered a priority area. In her submission to the inquiry, Dr Beattie said:
"Due to changes in the government policy, we are no longer eligible to sponsor overseas trained doctors or deemed to be in a Distribution Priority Area (DPA). This change to policy has had a catastrophic effect to our local community as we are no longer able to provide the service they want or deserve. We have to turn away new patients every day as all of our GPs have closed their books."
Dr Beattie, who runs a brilliant service on the northern end of the Central Coast, has described the situation as 'catastrophic'. There is an urgent need for action now, while locals are waiting weeks for routine appointments, while emergency departments are stretched beyond capacity.
I worked at Wyong Hospital in my electorate on the Central Coast of New South Wales. The staff who work there are capable, dedicated and trained, but they are under enormous strain. The cuts and the slashing to healthcare funding by this government is only making it worse. This is not good enough. We have dozens of practices in our community crying out for help. We have hundreds of patients who can't access quality care close to home when they need it. Emergency departments are under strain, stretched to capacity, treating people who could have been seen by a GP—but they can't be. That is why I will keep pushing for a public hearing of the Senate inquiry to be held on the Central Coast in the community I represent. Communities like mine are struggling to get the quality care they deserve close to home when they need it. I want the Senate inquiry to hear from people on the north end of the coast because this has gone on for far too long.