Keeping the health system healthy in 2012

By John Connole
Sunday, 28 October, 2012

It is a great pleasure to provide a foreword for the first edition of Australian Hospital and Healthcare Bulletin for 2012.

The political landscape continues to change. And so does the health reform landscape.

The minority Labor Government is still in place. Despite the installation of a Liberal as Speaker of the House and the disenchantment of Andrew Wilkie over poker machine reform, there is every chance that the Government can go full term.

We now have a brand new Health Minister with Tanya Plibersek being promoted from Human Services. She is off to a strong start in the portfolio.

We also have the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler, in Cabinet.

While health is strongly represented at the highest level of Government, the climate of health reform is now relatively calm and sedate. No more ‘big picture’ reforms on the horizon. Change will be incremental at best, especially given the international economic circumstances.

Looking back, what was achieved in health over the past year? Well, 2011 was slow and steady.

Other than the COAG Health Agreement in February, the Government’s flawed mental health package in May, and the Government’s triumphant tobacco plain packaging legislation, there were no new policies or programs that would bring about major structural change or new directions for the health system.

The economic times are no doubt a contributing factor. The fact that health has taken a back seat to the major political battles of the carbon price, the mining tax, and asylum seekers is another.

In this environment, the Government was content to put to bed the policies and programs that survived the sudden end of Kevin Rudd’s health ‘revolution’ in 2010. The AMA was critical of some Government policies, and supportive of others.

We strongly supported the tobacco plain packaging legislation. We supported the Government’s moves to increase the immunisation rate, and we welcomed the Government’s increases in medical training places and the increased funding for Indigenous health.

We wanted more from the COAG Agreement but we acknowledge the final outcome was a relatively good result given the change of government in several States.

The single funding pool is a step in the right direction and there is now greater transparency in the system. The States are now unable to pass the blame for the performance or non-performance of their hospitals.

It is in the primary care area, however, where we seek more consultation and cooperation from the Government.

We note that the Medicare Locals are now part of the landscape. But we do not accept that the model has to stay the same.

The AMA is encouraging ‘bottom up’ activism from local doctors to ensure strong GP leadership and management of Medicare Locals. I have visited every State and Territory and met with local doctors and Medicare Locals management and we are already making a difference. GP representation on Boards is high in some areas.

We will continue to work with the Minister to get some changes from the top, too.

The AMA will also keep working on the Minister to inject some common sense into the GP Super Clinics program.

As we have said all along we have no problem with the model, rather with the locations. We cannot support them where they compete with existing GPs delivering exactly the same service. The money would be better spent on existing general practices through the oversubscribed infrastructure grants program.

We continue to battle for a reversal of cuts to the Better Access program for GP mental health services but the action must now come from every GP.

We obtained a guarantee for clinical leadership of lead clinician groups in the Local Hospital Networks (LHNs).

There are more medical training places and there is greater funding for public hospitals.

It is important going into 2012 that things do not go backwards in health. Yes, the economy will be under enormous pressure but funding and focus must not be taken from the health system.People need a strong health system even more in the tough times.

The AMA will be calling on the Government to ensure the ‘pillars’ of the health system are looked after in the months and years ahead. We will be urging a special focus on general practice, our hospitals, and the health workforce.

When people are sick or injured or want quality health advice, they want to see a doctor.

When they or a loved one are in an accident or need surgery, they want to be confident in the knowledge that they will have timely access to a nearby hospital with professional and committed medical and other staff to provide the highest quality care. We have to keep getting this right for the Australian people.

Dr Steve Hambleton

Dr Steve Hambleton was elected Federal President of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) in May 2011, after serving a two-year term as Federal Vice President.

Dr Hambleton graduated from the University of Queensland in 1984 and commenced full-time general practice in Queensland in 1987. He has been working at the same general practice at Kedron in Brisbane since 1988.

Dr Hambleton was President of AMA Queensland and an AMA Federal Councillor. He served on the AMA Council of General Practice at a State and Federal level for more than 10 years. Dr Hambleton was the AMA representative on the National Immunisation Committee from 2006-2010, and was a member of the Pharmaceutical Benefi ts Advisory Committee for two years until 2009. He has been a member of the AMA Taskforce on Indigenous Health since 2006 and is currently the Chair of the Taskforce.

Dr Hambleton is a former member of the Government Red Tape Taskforce and the Practice Incentive Program and Enhanced Primary Care Review Advisory Group. He currently serves on the Practice Incentive Program Advisory Group.

In 1989, Dr Hambleton became one of the principals of Continuous Care Medical Centres, where he developed a strong interest in practice development and teaching medical students and GP registrars. In 2000, he was appointed Medical Director of Foundation HealthCare – the forerunner to one of Australia’s largest GP corporate groups, Independent Practitioner Network. Dr Hambleton became State Director of Foundation HealthCare in 2001.

Dr Hambleton was Acting CEO of AMA Queensland, October-December 2007.

Dr Hambleton was admitted as a Fellow of the AMA in 2007.

Dr Hambleton is married with four children.

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