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Indigenous health gets temporary lifeline

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The Federal Government has been urged to extend its 12-month funding lifeline for Indigenous-run health services to give them financial certainty for at least an extra five years.

AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton said confirmation from Health Minister Peter Dutton that the nation’s 150 Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services will receive $333 million in the Federal Budget to enable them to keep operating until mid-2015 was welcome, but added longer-term financial security was required, urging the Abbott Government to guarantee funding for at least the next five years.

“Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services deliver the highest quality, culturally appropriate health care to the Aboriginal population,” Dr Hambleton said. “These services make a huge difference to people suffering serious health conditions.”

His comments were supported by the results of a report that found marked improvements in the performance of health services treating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Using data from more than 200 primary health care organisations that mainly treat Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that there had been a jump of between 5 and 9 percentage points in key health services, including detailed health assessments of adults, developing team care arrangements for patients with type 2 diabetes and recording baby birth weights.

Nationally, the Institute found, 58 per cent of Indigenous babies born in the 12 months to mid-2013 had had their birth weight recorded by a primary health care provider.

“Government investment in Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services is money well spent,” Dr Hambleton said. “There is clear evidence that it saves lives and improves quality of life for Aboriginal peoples. It closes the gap.”

Delivering the annual Commonwealth Closing the Gap report in February, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the gap in rates of child mortality between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous community had halved in the past decade, but admitted there had been almost no progress in narrowing the gap in life expectancy – currently around 10 years – between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the community.

In addition to the 12-month funding lifeline for Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services, Mr Dutton also approved $98 million to fund five specific Indigenous health programs – Primary Health Care, Healthy for Life, Australian Nurse Family Partnership, New Directions: Mothers and Babies, and Stronger Indigenous Health Services – being delivered by 90 organisations across the country.

A spokesman for the Health Minister told The Australian that “extending the funding to June 2015 provides the continuity for these organisations to deliver important services to Indigenous people over the next 12 months”.

National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation Chair Justin Mohamed said the extra funding was recognition of the significant contribution Indigenous-led health services were making in closing the health gap.

But Mr Mohamed warned that, welcome though the funds were, more was needed.

“The Aboriginal population is growing, and demand for our services is increasing at a rate of more than 6 per cent a year,” he said. “We need to have surety that we will have the resources to continue to improve the health of our people over the long term to meet this growth.”

Mr Mohamed said funding should grow in line with inflation and should be guaranteed beyond the next financial year.

“We are only now starting to see the results of programs put in place five years ago,” he said. “As such, we need to move to a more secure funding model, moving from the current three-year agreements to five-year agreements.”

It was a call backed by Dr Hambleton, who urged the Government to move to a five-year funding agreement “as soon as possible”.

Adrian Rollins