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Govt funding goes begging because of bungling

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The Health Department has been accused of bungling a multi-million dollar program intended to boost GP training in rural areas.

AMA President Professor Brian Owler has taken the Department to task over revelations that fewer than 50 Rural and Regional Teaching Infrastructure Grants have been awarded, despite funding for double that number.

In its 2014-15 Annual Report, the Department advised that just 10 of 100 grants provided for by the Government in that year had been approved. Professor Owler said that since then a further 38 had been awarded, and negotiations on another “20 or so” were underway.

But the AMA President said this still fell well short of expected targets. In its 2014-15 Budget, the Government committed $52.5 million over three years to fund at least 175 grants worth up to $300,000 each.

There are ongoing concerns about the difficulty of recruiting and retaining doctors to practise in country areas, and the grant program was established to help rural clinics to expand their facilities to accommodate medical students and supervising GPs.

Professor Owler said the program’s underperformance was particularly disappointing given the Government’s crackdown on spending in most areas of health.

“Many health services and programs and organisations are struggling as the Government puts the Budget bottom line ahead of improving health outcomes,” he said. “So it’s a surprise to find an area of health where funding targets are not being met or, to put it another way, precious allocated health funding is not being spent.”

The AMA President said the implementation of the program had been flawed – it took the Department four months to invite applications, and set a deadline during the 2014-15 Christmas-New Year holiday period.

“Give the Department’s extensive experience with infrastructure grants, this should have been a straightforward exercise. Clearly it has bungled the process,” Professor Owler said. “This ineptitude has wasted a rare opportunity to enable more medical students and GP registrars to experience and develop an interest in rural practice, and give patients better access to health services in their community.”

He said that what made it all the more galling was that this had occurred at a time when the Government was slashing GP funding.

The episode also showed the destructive effect of health spending cuts.

Professor Owler said the financial uncertainty created by Government policies such as the Medicare rebate freeze and the MBS Review had made general practices increasingly risk averse.

In order to qualify, practices have to commit to matching the grant provided by the Government, and the AMA President said many were reluctant to make the investment in the current environment.

He said it was unsurprising that, given the lacklustre response, the Government was reconsidering its approach to infrastructure grant funding.

Adrian Rollins