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Health and ageing responsibilities spread wide in Abbott Government

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Last week saw the return of Federal Parliament for the first sittings since the election was called in August.

It has been a quiet start for the new government, with limited announcements and minimal media activity, as it has gone about establishing Ministerial offices and appointing staff. The tone and activity levels in Parliament House are very different from the past – and that is just the way Prime Minister Tony Abbott wants it.

AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton and I met with Health Minister Peter Dutton soon after his appointment as Minister. Mr Dutton has a strong grasp of health policy issues, having shadowed the portfolio in Opposition during the past six years. He is also in the unusual position of having a Prime Minister who is a previous Minister for Health, and who continues to have a strong interest in health policy.

We had several issues on our agenda for the meeting, including the planned Medicare Local review, which the Minister confirmed would have similar terms of reference to those announced prior to the election, and which align closely with the areas for review proposed by the AMA Council of General Practice. The review is yet to be formally announced.

We raised concerns about the medical workforce training pipeline, particularly bottlenecks beyond postgraduate year 1. It was pleasing to see that the National Medical Training Advisory Network proposed by Health Workforce Australia was agreed to by the Standing Committee on Health last week – a big step forward. For the first time there will be a coordinated medical training system with five-year rolling medical training plans.

An ongoing concern has been the need for a review of the PCEHR to make it more clinically relevant to medical practitioners. Subsequent to our meeting, the Minister announced the establishment of a small panel (which includes Dr Hambleton) to undertake a short and focused review with a tight reporting timeline.

Another issue on our agenda was examination of the PBS Authority system, which imposes significant red tape on GPs – adding unnecessary wasted time in a busy day as they wait for authority to prescribe certain medications. The Minister has agreed to review the current arrangements to see if they can be further streamlined.

Dr Hambleton and I have had the opportunity for an informal meeting with Minister Fiona Nash, who has diverse portfolio responsibility as the Assistant Minister for Health. Senator Nash takes on the areas of rural and regional health, public health issues such alcohol, tobacco and food, the delivery of Indigenous health, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

Parts of the old Health and Ageing portfolio have now been redistributed far and wide – Indigenous health policy now resides with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, while policies on ageing and delivery of services for the ageing now fall within the ambit of the Department of Human Services, and Assistant Minister for Social Services Senator Mitch Fifield.

Co-ordination of advocacy across multiple departments will be an interesting challenge under the new government.

The newly-appointed Shadow Minister for Health, Catherine King, has had some prior exposure to health policies as Parliamentary Secretary for Health in the Rudd and Gillard governments.

With the commencement of the Parliamentary term, the AMA looks forward to engagement with the new Government and Opposition.

There is never a shortage of health policy issues to be raised with our political leaders.