TRANSCRIPT: Cuts to GP Access After Hours Service

09 November 2021



JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Good morning everyone, thanks for coming along to Toronto on this really important occasion. You know, our local politicians are busy, and Meryl, Pat, Sharon, and I rarely have the opportunity to get together locally. It takes an issue as important as this to bring us all together, to put everything else aside, to bring more media and therefore more community attention to this serious issue we are talking about today.

There’s been one enduring issue for me as local member over the last 25 years, and that has been access to quality and timely healthcare. It’s never been good enough, but there have been times where we’ve been quite successful, and we’ve had backing us up for all that time the After Hours service. This has been the backbone of our health services here in the Hunter Valley across all of our electorates. Now it is under siege. And there’s no more important a responsibility for a government than to ensure that our community does have access to that affordable, timely, high quality healthcare. That’s now under threat.

I thank Sharon Claydon who has been leading this campaign, including with her petition. I thank all of the community members who have signed that petition. With your help, I hope we can turn around a situation in which both the Federal and State Governments have let us down.

SHARON CLAYDON, MEMBER FOR NEWCASTLE: Thanks Joel. It’s an incredible privilege to stand with my Labor colleagues in a fight to save yet again our GP Access After Hours service. This is a petition - we’re preparing to go to Canberra in the coming days, and this petition signed by more than 10,700 citizens brings with it the voices and the stories of just why people are so worried about losing this service in our region. These stories are filled with a sense of loss, the loss of a service potentially at the Mater Hospital, and the loss of hours at all four remaining clinics. So in Newcastle, on Christmas Eve we are looking at losing an entire clinic at the Mater Hospital and having reduced hours at the John Hunter Hospital clinic.

These petitions tell the stories of that loss. What it means to those families who have been using that service over many years now. They tell stories of utter disbelief actually that the Government would even contemplate removing an essential frontline health service in our region. And then stories of anger of like how on earth could this government continue to undermine our universal healthcare system?

This is a clinic and an Access After Hours Service that has worked brilliantly in our region, in a region where it is hard to find bulk-billing doctors. But the anger from these stories goes to the issue that this is the Morrison Government refusing to take responsibility despite the fact it clearly is responsible for primary healthcare in this nation. These are stories about, you know, that the Government has refused to unfreeze the Medicare rebates that they did six years ago. There are stories about what it means when you take away bulk-billing incentives from regions like ours. This is a constant undermining of our universal healthcare system, and there’s 10,700 people here saying ‘enough, no more’. They’re the voices we are taking to Canberra this week, and we are not going to stop this fight. Thank you. 

MERYL SWANSON, MEMBER FOR PATERSON: G’day everyone. Scott Morrison comes to the Hunter and says he cares, he wants to be the Santa Claus of the Hunter, and yet on Christmas Eve the gift he is giving us is cutting GP Access here in the Hunter. The gift he is giving us is disregarding the people of the Hunter. So for every parent that has sat in an emergency waiting room for hours on end at John Hunter, at Maitland Hospital, for every parent that has tried to get their kid in to see a doctor when they can’t, GP Access has been the answer.

And this Government wants to cut GP Access. They are cutting GP Access. It is death by a thousand cuts thanks to the Morrison Government at a time when health has never been more important to the families of the Hunter. The Morrison Government is taking that health away from us, they are taking healthcare away from the Hunter. It’s not good enough, and he needs to absolutely reverse these changes and these cuts.

And it is death by a thousand cuts for GP Access. I want to say a big thanks to all of the frontline workers, particularly the GPs that have worked in GP Access. I want to say thank you to all of those people who have made it happen during what we all know has been a crazy time. The last two years during the pandemic have been inordinately stressful for healthcare professionals. People of the Hunter deserve the best, and if Scott Morrison is serious about the Hunter as he keeps telling us he is, then he will reverse these changes straight away. Thanks everyone. 

PAT CONROY, MEMBER FOR SHORTLAND: Thanks Meryl, and I completely agree with my colleagues that this is an attack by Mr Morrison and his Liberal Party mates on the health outcomes of our region. The cuts to the Belmont After Hours service mean that half the hours on weekends when they are so desperately needed are cut. As a father of young kids, I have used the service many times. My older relatives have used that service. It is a great service for families in the Lake Macquarie and Central Coast region. It’s a great service that stops our already under pressure emergency departments being clogged up even further, and it’s part of a series of attacks on health outcomes in this region.

Let’s not forget that the Liberals stole our vaccines during the height of the COVID pandemic. The Liberals have cut the bulk-billing incentive that’s attacking GPs right now. They’ve declared us not an area of GP shortage so we are struggling to get GPs in our area. This is another cut, another attack on the health outcomes for the Hunter and Central Coast, and Labor won’t stand for it. And I want to say Labor will not stand for it. We are joining with the community to fight for the preservation of this service.

I now want to invite two of the founders of this service Dr Carruthers and Dr Robinson to say a few words, and Dr Lee Fong from the GP Association, and we’ve got Harold who has been a patient and has had family members who have used this service. So I’d like to invite them to say a few words about how important this service is.

DR ANNETTE CARRUTHERS AM, INAUGURAL CLINICAL DIRECTOR OF GP ACCESS AFTER HOURS: I’ve been incredibly proud of what GP Access After Hours has achieved over the years in bringing together initially 250 GPs to work together for the benefit of our community. We probably had the best after hours service in the country, but now we are finding bureaucrats are wanting to cut our funding and leaving the community worse off and I don’t think that’s what government is about.

I’m particularly concerned about the halving of the hours at Belmont and Toronto. People coming to Toronto, if there’s no service here they either have to go to Wyong Hospital or John Hunter Hospital. It’s an awfully long way to drive – assuming you have transport. You know, what about all of the sports injuries we look after on weekends, the fish hooks from the fishermen, the ticks out of their heads? You know all those things people are going to have to go elsewhere for.

And on Belmont, we really, really help that emergency department. We work beautifully together. We see lots of their patients far more cost efficiently than the emergency department, and if we’re not there, the waits will blowout. And again we get people coming up from Catherine Hill Bay, Swansea Heads. You know, for them to drive right through to John Hunter is an incredibly long drive. So that’s what will happen when the service isn’t open and they’ll want to see a GP.

DR CHARLES ROBINSON, GP FROM BELMONT HOSPITAL: I work at Belmont emergency department and two weeks ago the GP Access staff were sick and unfortunately I had to close the clinic for a short period of time of six hours. The waiting time at Belmont went from two to three hours and ballooned to seven hours just in a short period of time. So we’ve experienced what’s going to happen in the future, and that’s where we are. I’ve also worked in GP Access. We have an extremely good relationship. We share patients depending on the complexity of the cases. So by the cutback from Belmont Hospital, the community will suffer.

DR LEE FONG, GP ACCESS CLINICAL DIRECTOR: GP Access After Hours provides an incredibly vital service in terms of urgent after hours care for our region. This is particularly for the vulnerable people in our region, so this is parents, babies, children, and something that we haven’t mentioned so far: the elderly who are in aged care facilities. So in the after hours period, GP Access provides a really urgent service to them, so if we are talking about cutting back, maybe even removing this service, what’s going to fill that void? I hear nothing except ‘go to the emergency department’. That isn’t good enough. This service has to be retained, and thank you for the support of our local members in this.

HAROLD LLOYD, LOCAL RESIDENT: I’m just a concerned resident. I’ve been living in this area for around about 20 years, and I have been coming here with children, family, I’ve got an elderly mother who has trouble with transportation. This has been extremely convenient for us, and we’ve used it as I said many times.

If it’s taken away, we are going to find life dififcult, and at a time where I think we’ve just seen a pandemic, we’ve just seen hospitals loaded, we’ve just seen, you know, congestion everywhere, why would we take it away? And I’m concerned about that. I’ve spoken to friends and residents in the area and they are saying the same thing: we actually want it to stay.

DANIEL REPACHOLI, LABOR CANDIDATE FOR HUNTER: Thank you everyone for coming today. I would just like to back up what exactly everyone has said today. So if we lose this service, we lose so much for our community. Our community needs this, our hospitals need this, our health system needs this. We can’t have this stop. So the Labor Party will be pushing hard to keep this going with all the other MPs here in the upcoming federal election. We will be working hard to save this to show the people that this needs to stay here and we all know that. We’ve had a petition of 10,700 people. If that’s not enough to show the Government that this needs to stay, what is? We need to stop this, and we need to get rid of the Morrison Government and bring Labor back in. Thank you.

REPORTER: This has been an issue ongoing for a long time, even back in 2015 there were issues with funding being threatened to be cut. There’s always a fight to have this refunded. Why is it not on the recurrent funding list?

CARRUTHERS: It’s an incredible frustration. So much of health is done ‘we’ll pilot this, we’ll pilot that’, and they never become ongoing services even when they are really successful. And we’re seen a little bit like that and we are just different to everywhere else. So they try and bring us back to mediocre rather than raise everyone else up to our standard.

But yeah, because it’s different we are under threat. But you’re exactly right. When you have a model that really works, make it mainstream business. Don’t keep trying to cut it.

REPORTER: And you’d imagine with a Liberal Government being economically very concerned about such things, the savings on the health system of a GP Access would be enormous wouldn’t they?

CARRUTHERS: They’re extraordinary. As I said, we are much cheaper than being seen in the emergency department, and at times early intervention can save more serious illness. You know, apart from seeing all of the minor things, we see some fairly serious things as well, and sometimes early detection can save someone’s life.

REPORTER: And we’ve heard an example of what it was like when GP Access wasn’t available and how the times blew out. What sorts of flow on effects can you see this having if these services were to cease?

CARRUTHERS: People are either going to miss out on services because they are unable to access the services that are available, or they’re going to go and have extremely long waits. And for people who are there for more serious things who need more urgent attention, their care is going to be delayed as well because of the numbers and the limited numbers of staff that are available.

REPORTER: And what about for the doctors that are already under the pump, what will it be like for them?

CARRUTHERS: Well the doctors in the hospital are a lot more stressed, you know, trying to work as quickly as they can, whereas GPs are more used to a more rapid turnover. We are used to dealing with general practice problems, whereas a junior resident in an emergency department isn’t, and they’ll run off and do a whole lot of tests for someone who has got a simple urinary tract infection that we can deal with in 10 minutes. That’s the difference. So yes, all those costs will actually, you know, they’re an impost on the system, whereas we actually, because we provide x-rays here, we actually order x-rays at the other clinics, the area earns money on it. So they get a benefit from it that they are going to lose.

SWANSON: Can I just add something to that Sage? I think we’re at a time at the moment federally where we are seeing the States, every State Health Minister has written to the Commonwealth begging for more money. We’ve seen incredible and increased pressure on our medical system during COVID. We’ve got frontline workers, doctors, nurses, healthcare professionals, allied health professionals, cleaners, people who are keeping our health system running under more pressure than we have ever seen in the history of modern medicine in Australia. And now the foremost service in this region that takes pressure off the hospital - so the emergency department is one of the highest pressured area in a hospital. GP Access takes pressure off emergency. Why, why would you cut such an incredible pressure release from our service?

So we’ve got to keep GP Access going, and we can’t have people sitting at Maitland Hospital for seven, eight, nine hours, at the John Hunter for hours on end when they are obviously needing attention when you’ve got a great service like this. But overall, the Commonwealth has to step up. They’ve got to do better with funding, and we can’t cut a brilliant service that is actually saving money for the Commonwealth.

REPORTER: And on that note, we’ve had the State and Federal Governments point the finger at each other for who’s responsible for this service. What should the Fedeal Government be doing?

SWANSON: Stop the blame game for a start. I mean people have had enough of the State and Commonwealth blame game. At the end of the day, it is up to the Commonwealth Government to produce funding for our health system and it is up to the State Government to efficiently implement that funding. We’ve got to stop the blame game because at the end of the day it’s the families of the Hunter that pay the price. They spend their lives sitting in waiting rooms, trying to get an appointment with a GP, trying to see a specialist.

Do you know that you cannot see a neurological specialist in the Hunter at the moment? The appointments have stopped. People have to go to Sydney. Trying to see a psychologist, trying to see any sort of specialist – ear, nose, and throat, the waiting time is 18 months. So apart from not having enough specialists, people can’t get in to see them, so there is just an array of health let downs.

And, you know, talking to Dr Annette this morning and Dr Charles, they’re just seeing this every single day. And the Hunter is the fastest growing regional area in New South Wales at the moment. So people are coming here because they don’t want to live in Sydney anymore, they’ve got a better chance of trying to afford a house here, but they need the services and the infrastructure to create a good life. And that’s what Labor’s going to fight for. We’ve had a gutful of it quite frankly. You know, we need the right services to provide the service for people who want to live here.

REPORTER: And we know we have a deadline for when the service is set to finish. If the Government doesn’t step up – obviously that’s the ultimate goal is for the Government to intervene before that happens – but if it doesn’t, with an election coming up, what does Labor commit to do?

CLAYDON: We’ve estimated that the current threat to close the Mater Hospital and reduce the hours in each of the remaining four clinics is going to impact on 15,000 people in our region. That’s 15,000 people without access to an affordable, essential healthcare service. That has massive implications clearly for our hospitals but also for all of the people. For goodness sakes, if the health and wellbeing of your citizens is not your number one priority in government, I don’t know what is.

So, you know, we are going to be fighting as Labor MPs for at the bare minimum restoration of existing services. That is number one. But we all know that there is much more work to be done. You know we’ve got inequities in terms of – we’ve got gross GP shortages in some of our areas. We’ve got problems with the ongoing impacts of Medicare rebate freezes. We’ve had the removal of bulk-billing incentive payments for our regions forcing our GPs to close doors, again putting more pressure on. These are all, you know, these have been issues for years and what you are seeing today with the closure of the Mater clinic and the reduced hours is actually the culmination of years and years of active undermining of universal healthcare.

SWANSON: Eight years.

CLAYDON: Eight long years of it. It’s got to stop. That’s what we’re going back to fight for. You know, there are threats on the horizon. We know the Government has a review sitting on the Minister’s desk today which if implemented would further reduce funding to this service. We have to stop that. As Dr Carruthers made clear, we’re not interested, you know, in being reduced to the lowest common denominator here. We’ve got a fantastic service. A great, you know, a lifesaving service for our region. It is a model that indeed other regions would dearly love, and I think that the capacity for us to show the way nationally is absolutely ripe for the picking.

CONROY: If I can just supplement what Meryl and Sharon were saying on one specific point. All of those points were excellent, but this service at the moment – well, last year pre-cuts – ran on $4.5 million. The current cut is half a million dollars. That $4.5 million saves the health budget north of $16 million a year from avoided ED visits according to independent economic analysis. So a $4.5 million investment saving over $16 million. This is a half a million dollar cut, but if that review that the Government has on its desk, on Mr Hunt’s desk is accepted, of the remaining $4 million, $3 million goes.

So we will be down to a $1 million service rather than $4.5 million. That effectively ends the service. So that’s what’s at stake now, ending a service that saves taxpayers millions of dollars a year by looking after people better through primary and preventative healthcare, and avoiding clogging up our ED. That’s what’s at stake, and as Meryl, Sharon, Dan, and Joel have said, we are going to fight like hell to preserve this service with the community.

REPORTER: And just another question for you while you’re there Pat, just about the Blockade Australia protests.

CONROY: Sure, I might ask our medical assistants (inaudible). If it wasn’t caught up on the mics, I have been asked about the occupation of the coal loader on the rail line in Newcastle. Labor completely condemns this form of ecoterrorism. That is what it is. We are opposed to all forms of extremism, whether it’s gallows being paraded in front of the Victorian Parliament House, or the occupation and the prevention of completely legal activities in the Hunter Valley. Let’s be very clear about what this is. This is a rolling blockade to distort and destroy a perfectly legal activity - coal mining - that delivers billions of dollars of revenue and income to workers and families in our region.

So Labor unequivocally condemns this action. They should not be doing it. They should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And I make this point, that this is not the way to campaign on climate action because you’re dividing our community. Other groups that are equally passionate about climate action are doing it the right way. They are talking to our local community, they’re bringing the community with them, and persuading them about the need for action on climate. What this does is it divides our community, it hurts Hunter families, and Labor unequivocally condemns it.

Thanks guys.