The Yass Health Forum held recently.

Labor held a Health Forum recently with Member for Eden-Monaro Kristy McBain and Health Shadow Minister Mark Butler who said the healthcare system is under enormous pressure.

“The impression I’ve got is our healthcare system is under enormous pressure,” Mark said. “It’s not just because of the pandemic.” “A lot of back pressure was there before the pandemic.”

Similarly, he added that the aged care system, which Mark has worked with for 30 years, is under a level of pressure and crisis that he has never seen before.

“I’ve seen aged care go through very difficult periods,” he said. “But right now, the depth of staff and crisis, financial viability, that the aged care is facing is something I’ve never seen before.”

But Mark said if he were to diagnose a singular cause of this crisis it would be workforce. There are simply not enough workers employed where they need to be.

The pair fielded several probing questions from the audience about the state of healthcare in Yass, Medicare, and the ongoing staffing crisis across the sector.

The first question fired off by an audience member detailed whether dental care would be included under Medicare in an Albanese Government. Mark said to casual observers Medicare is in a bizarre position where there’s one part of your body not covered by Medicare – your mouth or oral care. He added that oral health has a whole range of knock-on health implications.

“I am very aware that there is still this massive gap and we still have within our platform a very clear commitment to remedy this anomaly,” Mark said. “We’re not going to pretend we can do that quickly, there are a whole lot of choices that we have to make.”

“The fundamental elements of Medicare aren’t working properly right now and that is going to be my first focus if we’re lucky enough to be elected in May. But longer term, we’re going to have to find a way to deal with this.”

Mark made it clear that although he would like to deal with this longstanding anomaly quickly. There’s a lot on Labor’s agenda in the upcoming election but he said they are not taking a position that within the first term of a Labor Government they will fix dental, but Labor remains committed.

Another audience member queried how Labor will encourage people to take up the costly education of becoming a General Practitioner (GP) in a sector facing an ongoing staff shortage.

“Well, we need to pay more there’s no question about that,” Mark answered. “We’ve got a lot of additional university places that (Education Shadow Minister) Tanya Plibersek has announced.”

“They’ll be focused on the areas of skill shortage as well as TAFE places, which will bring in ENs and a whole bunch of aged care workforce.”

Member for Eden-Monaro Kristy McBain added a regional perspective describing the difficulty many regional and rural teens have attending university.

“I’ve had numerous conversations with Tanya Plibersek about this very factor,” Kristy said. “We have to find a way to make it easier for regional kids to study because nine times out of ten, they end up coming back to the community they grew up with and working in it.”

“I’m really keen to make sure that we can encourage, incentivise, and do something to make sure that we are giving those opportunities to regional kids as well.”

Mark added that if you get training in your local community, you’re far more likely to stay and build a life there, which is the best way to nurture a local health workforce.

Paul Haines, President of the Yass Branch of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, made a statement about the dire situation at the Yass Hospital, which was met by applause from the crowd.

“We’re now at a point where this community as well as many communities across NSW are really suffering/there are some really bad outcomes as a result of the underfunding we’re suffering at the moment,” Paul said.

Paul and the Union have held two strikes in recent months raising awareness about working conditions alongside a solidarity rally for aged care. “If we don’t do something very, very soon, we’re going to end up in real dire straits.”

The Shadow Health Minister responded that the first responsibility of the Commonwealth is that pipeline of workers and training as many young Australians as they can to take on jobs in the healthcare sector.

“I think we’ve dropped the ball on that nationally over the last 10 years and I don’t think that’s yet really bitten in the way it will over the next 10 years, if it’s not turned around,” he said. However, Mark said ultimately, the running of the Yass Hospital is a State Government concern although the Commonwealth does have “skin in the game”. He added that issues with the health sector’s workforce are at the top of his list.

“I think that’s the most fundamental problem across health and aged care that we have right now. It can’t get fixed overnight, but we’ve got to do better than that.”

Yass Valley Deputy Mayor Jasmin Jones asked the last question pleading for a rescue plan for the redevelopment of the Yass Hospital with maternity services and reinstatement of item 288, which allowed the bulk billing of psych consults over telehealth.

“Our hospital is so vital, we cannot afford to have it break and the only way it’s staying together right now is through the goodwill of our nurses,” she said. “We need a rescue plan for rural and regional communities that are high growth and Yass is growing and we need Commonwealth support to pick up where New South Wales has let us down.”

Mark said Labor was committed to reinstating item 288 and that it was necessary for so many regional communities. “As a an increasingly commuter suburb, as I understand it, to Canberra, you’re going to need better health services,” he said. “We want to be a part of that conversation.”

“Obviously, the hospital level services are delivered by the state, but we want to work with the States. That’s how our healthcare system works best.”

“We’re committed to putting money on the table for this.”

Mark said Labor made a similar commitment in the 2020 by-election and they remain committed to that.

“We need to be able to work with the NSW State Government on that, need them to come to the table, certainly in the short term,” he said. “A redeveloped hospital is a longer-term project for a growing community like this and we want to be involved in that discussion.”

Brianna O’Rourke