The Federal Health Minister Dr Michael Wooldridge has today introduced legislation into the Parliament that ensures rural and remote areas of Australia will continue to have increased access to general practitioners.
The Health Legislation Amendment (Medical Practitioners' Qualifications and Other Measures) Bill seeks to remove the sunset clause contained in the Government's 1996 Medicare provider number legislation.
"If the sunset clause is not repealed the number of doctors practising in regional and rural Australia will decline dramatically", Dr Wooldridge said.
"An important priority of the Coalition Government has been to increase the number of doctors in the bush. Labor ignored our rural doctors for 13 years while in Government, allowing an exodus of GPs from our country areas", said Dr Wooldridge.
In 1996 the Government made changes to the Health Insurance Act 1973 to ensure that new doctors had to be appropriately trained before being able to claim Medicare benefits.
As part of this legislation, graduating doctors without their full qualifications are required to take part in programs such as the Rural Locum Relief Program or to work in public hospitals to receive access to Medicare rebates.
The Government's 1996 measures have ensured that the number of GPs practising in rural areas has increased over the last five years, reversing a generation old decline in the provision of medical services in the bush. The number of doctors practising in rural and remote areas has increased from around 5,400 in 1995-96 to over 6,200 in 1999-2000.
The success of the 1996 legislation in addressing the maldistribution of GPs in Australia is why the Government is now seeking to make those changes permanent.
"A 1999 review of the provider number legislation by the former NSW Health Minister, Ron Phillips, recommended that the sunset clause be removed and the Government has introduced legislation into the Parliament to that effect", Dr Wooldridge said.
"If the sunset clause lapses our rural towns, public hospitals and the quality of general practice in Australia will suffer severely.
"This legislation is one aspect of our Government's efforts to improve the access of rural Australians to health services.
"Since coming to office in 1996 the Coalition has introduced the John Flynn Scholarships, the world-first Rural GP Retention Program and last year's Budget provided $562 million for a rural health package to increase GP numbers and improve access to health services in the bush.
"The Government is seeking the support of the medical profession, the Opposition and the community with this important piece of public policy to ensure rural Australians will continue to have access to GPs and that all Australians have an opportunity to enjoy the best of health", Dr Wooldridge said.
Radio Producers please note: Dr Wooldridge has provided comments on the sunset clause amendments which can be accessed by calling 02 6289 3012 and 02 6289 3013 after 12 noon today.
Craig Simonetto, Office of Dr Wooldridge 02 6277 7220
Virginia Dove, Department of Health and Aged Care 02 6289 5152 or 0411 255 229