January 08, 2020 18:19:45
Sharon Leonard visited the same GP in Launceston’s northern suburbs for about 30 years before her breast cancer diagnosis.
- About half of Tasmanians face out-of-pocket costs when they see their doctor, meaning a regular GP visit may be out of reach
- According to the Tasmanian Council of Social Service, this means the state misses out on at least $100 million per year in federal primary health funding
- Disadvantaged Tasmanians have a life expectancy up to 18 years shorter than their wealthier peers
Once treatment concluded, she was horrified to find her follow-up appointments were not always bulk-billed.
“I was crying because they wouldn’t listen to me and understand I can’t afford to come all the time,” she said.
“They said, ‘we can’t do it for everyone’.
“It was very hard for me having chemo and being ill for six days at a time, and knowing I needed to go to the doctors’ but not having the money because my husband has cancer too.”
While trying to balance the costs of her care and her husband’s, the Ravenswood woman said she would sometimes miss out on doctors’ appointments simply because it was too expensive.
She eventually found a new doctor who bulk-billed and said she was grateful for community health services that supported her through cancer.
But she is among many Tasmanians who have struggled to afford medical visits.
More than 200,000 Tasmanians have at least two chronic conditions and the state has the nation’s second-worst GP bulk-billing rate, with about 50 per cent of patients facing out-of-pocket costs.
The Tasmanian Council of Social Service’s (TasCOSS) budget submission said because some people struggled to access GPs, Tasmania was losing out on at least $100 million in allocated federal primary health funding every year.
This was because residents were missing out on GP referrals to specialist support.
The effects are dire: disadvantaged Tasmanians have a life expectancy up to 18 years shorter than their wealthier counterparts and they are up to four times more likely to end up in one of the state’s emergency departments.
“Tasmanians aren’t able to access a universal health system because we’re not providing one as a state,” TasCOSS chief executive Kym Goodes said.
Nettie Burr manages Starting Point Neighbourhood House in Ravenswood — one of Tasmania’s most disadvantaged suburbs.
The organisation has asked residents about their ability to access basic primary health care.
“If you’re living on Newstart [Allowance], [you’re] prioritising paying your rent or having food on the table, nothing else exists really. It’s not enough money, it hasn’t been raised in 25 years,” Ms Burr said.
“Going to the doctor is not on the radar at all. You have to be really sick, and often taken by ambulance to the hospital.”
The Royal Flying Doctor Service uses donations and grants to offer primary health in rural and remote parts of Tasmania.
Chief executive John Kirwan said that three years after starting the service, it now has a waitlist for some treatments.
“We limit the areas we go to so we at least provide a quality service in those areas rather than spreading ourselves too thinly, but the demand is clearly there,” he said.
“We could double or triple our dental program and still be very, very busy — mental health similarly and physical health is also a challenge for us.”
Ms Goodes, Ms Burr and Ms Leonard agreed it was time the state and federal governments examined how funding was allocated to Tasmania.
“The State Government could underwrite that money for a period of time to be able to get the care on the ground that’s needed, so the most basic health care is available to every Tasmanian,” Ms Goodes said.
“[We could also] look at cashing out the money we’re eligible for but not accessing.”
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
A State Government spokesman said the TasCOSS budget submission would be considered.
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