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Rising rural champion

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Congratulations to Fiona Nash, sworn champion of rural health, on her ascension to the deputy leadership of the National Party and inner cabinet.

In addition to Rural Health, she now is also Minister for both Regional Development and Regional Communications. Quite a workload. Along with trying to rein in some of Barnaby’s enthusiasm, she now has an enormous responsibility.

As I write, the media ownership rules look like being radically changed and, with rural Australia keen to retain some local news media reflecting country town issues, she has a lot of barrows to push and policies to settle.

Changes to the granting of District of Workforce Shortage status announced by the Minister in February are indeed welcome, and will make it easier for small towns to both attract and retain GPs, be they international medical graduates or bonded scholars. This, along with the announcement of additional funding to train doctors in the bush, are good first steps in finding a solution to the rural medical workforce shortage.

The Rural Classification Technical Working Group met in Canberra on 25 February 25. Overall feedback was positive regarding the roll-out of the Modified Monash classification system for the General Practice Rural Incentives Program (GPRIP). However, all GP groups cautioned against extending it more widely to cover 10-year moratorium payback destinations and incentives under the Practice Incentives Program, in place of existing classifications of rurality.

On being questioned about the total spend on GPRIPs – given that Cairns, Townsville, Darwin, Hobart and other cities no longer qualify for the incentive -the Department advised it was too early to have an answer, a reply that surprised me, as I would expect them to know such a costing very well, long  before the change was made.

Similarly, when asked what outcomes were being measured to assess the workforce impact of the GPRIP changes, the reply was it was too early. Without answers to these questions, one cannot say Modified Monash is the best thing since sliced bread.

The Department did advise that a review of outcomes would occur in 2018. I hope my successor as Council of Rural Doctors Chair will ensure such measurements are made public at that time.

The first GPRIP payments under Modified Monash will be made in July or August this year.

Surprisingly, there were only a handful of appeals against the Modified Monash changes, and these were dealt with seriously and meticulously.

The First Assistant Secretary of the Department’s Health Workforce Division, David Hallinan, and Lisa La Rance of the Rural Access Branch, were both present and showed an enthusiasm to address rural workforce issues and to consult widely.