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Election focus on primary care

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The Federal Government has sharpened its pitch to the primary health sector ahead of the Federal election, boosting funding for research and outlining plans to shift it to the centre of national health policy.

Health and Medical Research Minister Tanya Plibersek told the Primary Health Care Research Conference in Sydney last week that the Government was intensifying its support for primary care as a way to improve the nation’s health and make most effective use of limited health funds.

“This Government is shifting the gravity in the Australian health system towards primary care,” Ms Plibersek told the Conference. “Primary health care is critical to Australia’s health system because it helps keep people well and out of hospital. The better we are at primary care, the better for patients and for our system.”

The Minister’s comments came after Shadow Health Minister Peter Dutton flagged last month that an Abbott Government would shift the health policy focus of the Commonwealth away from hospitals and on to primary care.

At the Conference, Ms Plibersek announced $2.5 million would be contributed to the creation of an international primary health care research organisation, in partnership with Canada.

She said the organisation would bring together more than 20 researchers, clinicians and policymakers from both countries, and have as its research focus chronic disease prevention and management, as well as improving access to primary health care for the vulnerable in the community.

“This is a natural partnership given the similarities between our two countries economically, demographically, and in terms of health challenges like chronic disease and ageing populations,” Ms Plibersek said.

The Minister said the National Health and Medical Research Council would also be given $11 million to fund research on primary health care capacity and infrastructure, improved consultation and participation, integrated care, performance measurement and e-health.

In an attempt to sharpen differences in health policy between the Government and the Opposition, Ms Plibersek emphasised the central role she expects Medicare Locals increasingly to play in supporting primary care.

The Coalition has adopted a sceptical approach to Medicare Locals, though in recent weeks it has vacillated on earlier statements that it would shut them down if it wins government.

In pointed remarks, Ms Plibersek underlined the Government’s commitment to the Medicare Locals system, which has been showered with $1.8 billion of Commonwealth funding.

“All of this research will provide strong evidence to help Medicare Locals further improve their coordination and delivery of primary health care services at the community level,” she said.

“As a Government, we have looked at the research on primary care, [and] central to that action has been the establishment of Medicare Locals.

“Medicare Locals are a key part of the Government’s health reform agenda.

“We see Medicare Locals as the newest part of Australia’s universal health system, not an optional extra.”

The Government hopes to cement the place of Medicare Locals with the support of the State and Territory governments.

To this end, Ms Plibersek announced last week the creation of the National Health Care Strategic Framework, which she hailed a s a “step in the ongoing process of…cultural change in our health system”.

“It’s a statement of our intent as Australian governments to continue to work together to create a stronger, more robust primary health care system.”

Ms Plibersek said the framework had as its strategic priorities the construction of a patient-focused and integrated primary care system; improving access and reducing inequity; increasing the focus on health promotion and prevention; and improving safety, quality and accountability.

“The Federal Government is now working with each State and Territory to develop state-specific plans for implementing the framework,” the Minister said.

Adrian Rollins