More workers and safety critical for Regional Health Services

13 February 2019

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:23): My question is to Senator McKenzie, the Minister for Regional Services. South Australia is reportedly set to receive $122 million from the $1.45 billion committed in January to mental health services, including funding for more mental health nurses and Indigenous mental health. South Australia suffers from chronic shortages from mental health nurses, particularly in regional and remote areas.

However, the safety of nurses in remote areas is especially important in my state, following the murder of a remote area nurse, Gayle Woodford, in March 2016. Gayle's death prompted national calls for the implementation of Gayle's law, which would see no remote area nurse being required to attend a call-out alone. As part of the government funding commitment, Primary Health Networks will be required to provide more job certainty through longer contracts. As well as job certainty, will the government ensure it is only funding services that provide safe working conditions for mental health nurses working in regional and remote areas?

Senator McKENZIE (VictoriaDeputy Leader of The Nationals and Minister for Regional Services, Sport, Local Government and Decentralisation) (14:24): Thank you, Senator Griff, for your question. Remote health workforce safety has been a longstanding concern for government and employers of remote health workers. Remote area nurses manage a number of risks while providing vital health services in communities which often have none. Weather, travelling large distances and other complexities all come into play. Across the nation, there are more than 1,500 health professionals operating in rural and remote areas. It is a very different model of healthcare delivery and ensures essential health care is available to assist the most vulnerable parts of the community in the most isolated areas.

We were all incredibly saddened to hear of the murder of Gayle Woodford, who was, tragically, murdered when responding to a late-night request for help in 2016 in the APY Lands, for simply doing her job and caring for those in need. In response to this tragedy, our government provided nearly half a million dollars for immediate assistance to a suite of resources to help health professionals in remote locations and their employers. In the main in this area, it is state governments who are the employers of allied health professionals, in particular nurses in regional areas, and mitigate the risk to their personal safety and security as they go about their daily duties, which are fundamental to all of us. As I reported to the Senate in August last year, we also gave CRANAplus, the organisation that was tasked with rolling out those services, an additional $13.7 million to grow the type of work it was doing out in regional areas. I also requested at that time from COAG health ministers an update on Gayle's Law and inquired what work state governments were doing to ensure that their remote and rural health workforce was safe.

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:26): Minister, on the subject of COAG and national Gayle's Law, it was on the agenda two years ago. My understanding is that it does not appear to have actually progressed since it was first on the agenda. Can you update us on that?

Senator McKENZIE (VictoriaDeputy Leader of The Nationals and Minister for Regional Services, Sport, Local Government and Decentralisation) (14:26): My understanding is that it was discussed, and Minister for Health Greg Hunt has made it very clear, as I have, that states right across the country should adopt the leadership of the South Australian government in passing the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (South Australia) (Remote Area Attendance) Amendment Act 2017. It was passed by the South Australian parliament and received royal assent on 12 December 2017 but is not yet proclaimed. The act will come into operation on a day to be fixed by proclamation, and on that day the attendant regulations will be made. This is anticipated to occur during 2019.

I think it's incredibly important that state governments be proactive. When we're looking at national law, and as we know for cooperatives and mutuals, some states have been a lot more proactive in adopting those principles than others, particularly those states that have a significant health workforce— (Time expired)

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:27): Minister, will the National Rural Health Commissioner be tasked this year with examining the employment conditions and safety of Australia's remote and rural health workforce, in particular remote area nurses, especially given the obvious hazards and challenges remote health care presents?

Senator McKENZIE (VictoriaDeputy Leader of The Nationals and Minister for Regional Services, Sport, Local Government and Decentralisation) (14:28): The Rural Health Commissioner, Professor Paul Worley, has been doing a great amount of work since his appointment by our government in ensuring that rural and regional Australians have access to high-quality domestically trained rural health professionals. He has been a key component of developing the rural health strategy, our $550 million commitment at last year's budget that will see over the next decade an additional 3,000 doctors and 3,000 nurses practising out in rural, regional and remote areas. We know there are key areas that you need to focus on if you're developing a rural workforce to practise out in the regions. The greatest indicator are the trainees and those people from regional communities, because they're much more likely to return. They don't see it as a negative. Additionally, we aim to actually train them out in the regions. So part of our strategy as a federal government has been focused on training places in rural, regional and remote communities. (Time expired)

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