Health Minister Sussan Ley.
Health Minister Sussan Ley. Contributed

Major parties have not backed a plan for rural healthcare

AUSTRALIANS living outside the capital cities have been left wanting on health policy in this drawn-out election campaign, with neither major party backing a national plan for the rural regions.

The focus in health has mostly been on the opposing stances of Labor and the Coalition on hospital funding and the long-standing freeze on Medicare rebate indexation.

While Labor has pledged to end the rebate freeze from January next year - costing $2.4 billion over four years - the Coalition will keep it until 2020, saving that money in a move the health industry largely opposes.

In his campaign launch speech yesterday, Labor leader Bill Shorten pledged to restore $650 million in proposed budget cuts to pathology and diagnostic imaging services.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has kept those cuts, but bowed to pressure from the pathology industry to legislate controls on the rent the firms pay on their collection centres.

The Coalition will also give state governments an extra $2.9 billion for hospitals - a promise falling well short of the $57 billion funding cut in 2014 - but Labor is yet to detail its plans on hospital funding, private health insurance rebates and primary care.

Health Minister Sussan Ley has started reviewing private health insurance and begun work on new "Primary Health Networks" to give local communities control over funding decisions, but with no extra money.

Only the Greens have backed a national plan for rural health from the Rural Doctors' Association and the Australian Medical Association.

That plan aims to address a $2 billion regional health funding shortfall through more training and support for rural GPs, and a two-tier proposal to attract more health workers to regional areas and boost specialist numbers in the bush.

RDAA president Dr Ewen McPhee said both the Coalition and Labor had "so far failed to come up with rural-specific health commitments" and were running out of time to do so.

"There is entrenched and systemic inequality in access to the local healthcare services available to rural and remote Australians... and this must urgently be addressed," he said.

"Australians in rural and remote areas experience significantly higher rates of disease and injury, worse health outcomes and a shorter life expectancy compared with those living in the major cities."

Mr Shorten also used his campaign launch to promise $257 million for businesses to receive $20,000 incentive payments to employ young or older workers, or mothers returning to jobs.

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