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More regions to get health worker priority

The federal government will direct more health workers to rural areas, improve mental health services and break down barriers to equitable health care for Australians living in the bush.

The assistant minister for rural and regional health, mental health and suicide prevention, Emma McBride, says she is determined to improve health care across Australia, as a “shadow mental health pandemic” emerges alongside COVID-19.

“We see people waiting weeks for routine appointments, skipping or delaying care, and ending up in the emergency departments of already overstretched hospitals,” Ms McBride said in a statement to AAP, outlining priorities in her new role.

“This is seen most acutely in mental health and suicide prevention services and amplified in rural and remote communities.”

Ms McBride said the government would give more regional areas priority status to address critical workforce shortages, allowing clinics to recruit overseas doctors and offer GPs financial incentives to move to areas in need.

The Senate healthcare inquiry described the priority selection system as “bad data giving bad decisions” after doctors said status changes based on population figures suddenly stripped them of crucial staff.

Ms McBride said mental health was a key focus, and the government was close to restoring 50 per cent loading for regional access to bulk-billed telehealth psychiatric consultations.

“This would reverse the former government’s damaging Medicare cut, which has impacted access to vital mental health services for people living in rural and regional Australia, at a time when demand for mental health support is at an all-time high.”

But the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners said many rural residents had been left behind by Medicare changes that removed rebates for phone appointments longer than 20 minutes, while keeping subsidies for video calls of the same time or longer.

Vice-President Bruce Willett said fast internet was not a given in rural areas, and many people were digitally excluded.

“Put yourself in the shoes of a patient in a small town with multiple health conditions, such as asthma and diabetes, who has to drive a long way to see a GP face-to-face and isn’t comfortable using video technology platforms,” Dr Willett said in a statement.

“For that patient, a longer phone consult is just what the doctor ordered, but unless the recent telehealth cuts are reversed, they are left out in the cold.”

Ms McBride said she was working with state and territory ministers to address structural barriers to health care.

“The links between education and training, employment, housing, justice and mental health are well established.

“That’s why I’m determined to work closely with ministers across portfolios to tackle these broader issues, which require a whole-of-government approach.”

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