Labor wants to take emergency-care pressure off GPs and hospitals, but reactions suggest it may be dead in the water.
In its first significant health policy announcement of the election campaign, Labor has promised to allocate $135 million over four years to trial 50 urgent care bulk-billing clinics across Australia.
The clinics, to be based at GP surgeries and community health centres, would be staffed by experienced doctors and trained nurses, according to shadow health minister Mark Butler, and would be open every day between 8am and 10pm.
“What they do is provide a level of care somewhere between what you get at a standard general practice and a fully-equipped hospital,” he told ABC News Breakfast. “So it’s things like the minor emergencies you have when your kid falls off a skateboard or you have a deep cut that needs stitches.
“They will be fully free and bulk-billed and that will make it easier and cheaper to see a doctor, but importantly [we’ll be] trying to take some of the pressure off our emergency departments, which are really heaving right now under unprecedented levels of demand.”
But some doctor groups are unimpressed.
The AMA said the centres would compete with nearby unfunded general practices, as well as fragmenting care, in a model “reminiscent of the failed Rudd-era GP super clinics”.
AMA vice-president Dr Chris Moy told TMR the clinics proposal was “essentially a smoke-and-mirrors patch-up job”.
“This is nice to see, but it basically doesn’t do anything in terms of coherent health policy – certainly it’s something they haven’t discussed with us,” he said. “I think that’s because they’re actually scared of what they really need to do, which is to implement the Primary Health Care 10 Year plan.”
Dr Moy was also concerned that the clinics proposal did little to help rural and regional health care services.
“We’re talking about 50 practices across the country,” he said. “Let’s get some perspective: Is it going to solve any of the rural problems? And isn’t it better to support your local practice to do this?”
While the RACGP welcomed the focus on community-based health services, the college said the proposed clinics should build on existing infrastructure and utilise established general practices.
“While we need to work through the detail of this proposal, a model that seeks to reduce duplication of primary care services and build on existing general practice clinics and infrastructure is something we would be happy to explore,” RACGP president Adjunct Professor Karen Price said in a statement.
“No new initiatives should fragment care. We have long been calling for support for after-hours access for acute care in general practice – this should take place in suitably resourced GP-led clinics. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
“I also want to stress that a pilot must not end there, and if it is successful, it should be rolled out to general practices around the country.”
Australian Private Hospitals Association CEO Michael Roff said he had not seen full details of the Labor proposal but was concerned about staffing.
“In theory, taking pressure off emergency departments is a good idea,” he told TMR.
“But if you’re stealing nurses from the hospital system or the aged care system to staff them, you’re just creating a circular problem because there will be shortages of services in another part of the system. We really need to increase the nursing workforce before any of these proposals can be realistically considered.”
Australia needed a national health workforce plan, Mr Roff said, calling on both major parties to commit to developing one.
“While a comprehensive plan will take time to complete, this work must begin and be resourced as a matter of urgency,” he said.
Outgoing Health Minister Greg Hunt lashed the proposal in a statement, also branding it as a “reheating and rehashing of the Rudd government’s failed super clinics”.
“Super clinics were rejected by the AMA as bad medicine and damned by an Australian National Audit Office report, which revealed that less than 10 per cent of the clinics promised by Labor in Round 1 of their program were actually delivered on time,” Mr Hunt said.