Meeting in Canberra over five days, Council of the 34-member strong NRHA has confirmed an eight-point agenda for the Alliance’s work over the next 12 months. This agenda formed the basis of meetings with parliamentarians this week. It will now be pursued by various means, including through submissions to the review of health workforce programs just beginning, as well as through ongoing work with agencies such as the rural Medicare Locals, the National Health Performance Authority, Australia’s National Preventive Health Agency and the Independent Hospital Pricing Authority.
The Alliance’s top priority is to support in any way it can the work underway to reduce the rate of smoking in rural and remote areas which remains much higher than in major cities. Not only is this critical in its own right for the health of people in the bush, it is also a marker of inequity in relation to the social and economic determinants of health status. The Alliance is confident that finding ways to significantly reduce rural smoking rates will have important lessons for health promotion and illness prevention in relation to a range of health risk factors and chronic conditions that contribute to the greater burden of disease in rural and remote communities.
Second on the Alliance’s list of priorities is for the new programs for oral health to be rolled out in ways that ensure rural people are among those who benefit first. Overcoming the shortage of oral health professionals in rural and remote areas will be critical. The capacity of public oral health services in rural areas targeted to children and low-income adults can only be significantly and rapidly increased through the use of dentists in the private sector.
Access to broadband is the Alliance’s third priority. High-speed and affordable broadband is part of the essential infrastructure for households, businesses and services in rural and remote areas. Whether their broadband is to be provided by fibre, wireless or satellite, every household and business in rural areas should be given a clear understanding of the timeline for provision of high speed broadband and should be able to access it at the same retail prices as in the major cities.
The Alliance is pushing for special programs to enable broadband connection early for those with the greatest need, such as families who are geographically isolated, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and people with a disability. These programs would provide support through Regional Development Australia Committees or community organisations for people with high needs to get through the application process, negotiate with Internet Service Providers and complete installation.
The next priority is support for making the needs assessment reports by Medicare Locals public and ensuring the Healthy Communities reports monitor how well needs are met within their area, as well as in one ML compared with another. Local people will then be able to be closely involved in the priorities of MLs.
HECS reimbursement for allied health and nursing graduates (as recommended by the recently-released Senate Report) and a new approach to rural and remote mental health care are the next priorities, with rural approaches to healthy ageing and aged care (both at home and in residential facilities) and quad bike safety rounding out the eight top priorities this week in Parliament House.