‘A positive feeling about regional health’

10 May 2011

Despite the current fiscal challenges, tonight‟s Federal Budget has seen growth in forward expenditure on health, with mental health services and regional hospital infrastructure the big winners.
New and enhanced programs for preventing and managing mental illness span three major Departments, covering not only health but housing, crisis accommodation and employment and training.
Gordon Gregory, Executive Director of the National Rural Health Alliance, said this new-found „whole of government‟ approach to a major health condition is most welcome.
“The five-year mental health services package will help correct the balance and see emotional and social wellbeing take its proper place alongside physical conditions,” Mr Gregory said.
“One can always worry about how the new programs will fit rural and remote areas – and indeed whether we will have the skilled workforce in the bush to make these good things happen. But at least now we have some of the raw materials to put together into programs that really can do the trick for us.”
Better coordinated care services for people with severe mental illness, to provide one point of contact for individuals and families across a multi-agency care plan, is an important element of the reforms, especially for people who live in rural and remote communities where services are scarce.
There is to be another round to allocate the remainder of the $1.8 billion in the regional Health and Hospitals Fund. Now that some of the larger regional centres have been assisted, the Alliance would like to see the emphasis given to towns of between 15,000-30,000 people that are de facto hubs in their area. A good example was this week‟s announcement about dialysis support and other services in communities in WA as diverse as Derby, Kununurra, the Pilbara, Bunbury, Eucla and Busselton.
The Alliance noted and strongly supports the extension of the augmented rural aged care viability supplement for another year, pending the Productivity Commission‟s recommendations on healthy ageing.
Although there is still considerable angst about the appalling state of oral health in Australia, particularly for those on low incomes and in rural areas, tonight‟s Budget has at least given a nod to the issue.
The Alliance looks forward to consultations about the voluntary dental internship, especially how it can secure better public dental services in rural and remote areas. It supports the establishment of the Dental Health National Advisory Council as the first step towards what has to be next year‟s Budget health priority.
“We understand and support the emphasis given in the budget papers to the economic boost that building health infrastructure in various centres. “Building liveable communities and „workable‟ health facilities is a critical part of sustainable rural communities – but we are still anxious about the relatively large size and small number of „regional‟ places on which the Government is focusing most of its effort,” Mr Gregory said.
Tonight‟s health budget also foreshadowed a rationalisation of over 150 smaller programs into 18 „flexible funds‟. Such streamlining will be welcomed for the red tape it may save but people in rural and remote areas will want to be reassured that programs targeted especially to the needs of their communities are not subsumed in more generalised programs.