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Indigenous health measures welcomed, but more needed

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The AMA welcomes many of the Indigenous health measures in the Federal Budget, while recognising that there is still more to be done.

The Indigenous Health Budget line for the next financial year has increased to $881 million, an $83 million increase that the Close the Gap Campaign, of which the AMA is a proud member, attributes mostly to population increases and indexation increases in the Indigenous Australians’ Health Program. There was also a $2.4 billion increase in funding allocated to Medicare over the next four years, and a much welcomed early lifting on the freeze on Medicare rebates.

In particular, the AMA supports the Government’s measures to strengthen and expand their commitment to address Rheumatic Heart Disease (RHD), something we have been strongly calling for. Last year the AMA released its 2016 Report Card on Indigenous Health that focused on the devastating effects of RHD, an entirely preventable disease that affects hundreds of Indigenous Australians each year. In our Budget Submission, the AMA called on the Government to commit to eradicating new cases of RHD, and we are pleased to see the Government heed these calls.

It is unacceptable that Indigenous Australians are still 20 times more likely to die from RHD than their non-Indigenous peers. This measure provides $7.6 million in new funding in addition to the $11.2 million already provisioned by the Government, and focuses on improving clinical care, and using education and training for health care providers, patients and their families to raise awareness to improve the prevention and treatment of RHD. The measure also includes funding for focused prevention activities in high-risk communities.

We also welcome the Government’s allocation of $9.1 million to improve telehealth arrangements for psychological services in regional, rural and remote areas of Australia. Nearly one-third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults report high levels of psychological distress in their lives – this is two and a half times the rate reported by other Australians. The AMA believes the mental health and social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal peoples should be given greater priority in the nation’s health policy agenda.

As the Government has said, this measure will help remove significant barriers faced by those people unable to access psychological services because of where they live. They will no longer have the inconvenience, time and expense of having to travel to large regional centres to receive the help that they need.

The Budget also commits $400,000 over four years to ensure that eligible pharmacists continue to be appropriately renumerated for supplying medicines under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) for individual clients of Remote Area Aboriginal Health Services. This measures ensures that pharmacists will be paid the regular PBS dispensing fee for each item provided, instead of the lower bulk handling fee.

While the AMA welcomes much of these measures, the budget remained quiet on many other important areas in Indigenous health. The gap in health and life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians is still considerable, despite existing commitments to close the gap. However, Health Minister Greg Hunt indicated at the Health Budget Lock-up that there is going to be a ‘third wave’ of reform, which will include Indigenous health. The AMA looks forward to working with the Government in this process.

Alyce Merritt
Indigenous Policy Adviser, AMA