Rural areas pin hopes on deal with states
ASSISTED travel schemes that help patients get medical treatment far from where they live are shaping up as a key litmus test of the federal Government’s promised new spirit of cooperation with the states.
The schemes — often relied on by residents of rural areas, who usually have to travel to cities for specialist treatment — differ from state to state, and were recommended for reform by a Senate inquiry last year.
The National Rural Health Alliance says rural people are now ‘‘ particularly hopeful’’ that the Labor Party’s sudden nationwide political hegemony will allow a deal between state and federal governments to harmonise the operations of the different state-based schemes, as well as make them more generous, as part of the renegotiation of the Australian Health Care Agreements.
Differences in eligibility and benefits between the various state schemes has proved a problem in the past for patients who live in one state but have to travel for treatment to another. The health care agreements, which last five years and set the rules under which the Commonwealth and states fund and run public hospitals, are due to be renegotiated by 30 June.
Previously their scope had been limited to the hospital sector, but since the middle of last year Labor has said it wanted to ‘‘ broaden the focus’’ of the agreements, in particular to encourage more preventive health care.
Gordon Gregory, executive director of the National Rural Health Alliance, said the travel schemes were relied on by many people to access specialist treatment.
‘‘ We regard the recommendations of the Senate inquiry as being a good way forward, and we are very hopeful that the new spirit of collaboration between Commonwealth and state governments in health will mean decisions can be agreed in the context of the AHCAs,’’ Mr Gregory said. ‘‘ The Alliance is pushing for these developments, including through direct correspondence with Commonwealth and state ministers.’’
The Senate inquiry, which tabled its report in September, in its first recommendation said the next AHCAs should ‘‘ recognise the fundamental importance of patient-assisted travel schemes’’ and include both ‘‘ a clear commitment’’ to improving these services and a clear funding allocation for them.
It also recommended new hospitals and treatment centres have accommodation facilities built on-site or nearby for patients travelling from afar, and called for the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council to establish ‘‘ as a matter of urgency’’ a taskforce to develop national standards for the travel schemes by September this year.
The national standards should create more flexible eligibility tests than current distance thresholds, to take account of other factors such as road conditions and availability of public transport. This might lead to a situation where residents of one town were not eligible for the scheme while residents of another town, which was in fact closer to a main centre but had poorer road and transport links, were eligible.
Application processes should also be simplified, performance of the schemes better monitored, and eligibility should be expanded to cover a wider range of treatments, the Senate report said. These should include consultations under the Enhanced Primary Care program and situations where a patient had agreed to donate an organ or participate in a clinical trial.
Health Minister Nicola Roxon told Weekend Health that better rural health services were on the Government’s radar, but declined to be specific on the issue of transport schemes. ‘‘ I am willing to explore the idea of including a specific rural health service commitment in the next Australian Health Care Agreements,’’ Ms Roxon said.
A spokesman for the Minister said the Government would talk to stakeholders such as the National Rural Health Alliance ‘‘ about what that commitment would involve’’.