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12 September 2019

Second Reading debate: Health Legislation Amendment and Repeal Bill 2019

I rise to speak on the Health Legislation Amendment and Repeal Bill 2019. This is an omnibus bill which does a number of things, but I am going to focus my contribution on the information sharing section of the bill, along with the Access to Medicinal Cannabis Act 2016, which is no longer necessary. The federal government have taken the lead in this. Cannabis is now under the normal use of drugs in schedule 8, which doctors and nurses have managed quite well. I am sure that is a really good change, because people need this drug for different reasons and it is managed by the health professionals responsibly, so it is good to see that that is now in train.

The information sharing parts of this bill are good to see. We can only improve in health when we improve information sharing. I was part of the parliamentary inquiry into perinatal care. As part of that, one of the things that was identified, particularly by an obstetrician from my region, was the fact that when doctors are setting up their clinics they are left to decide on what software they will purchase, and rather than have the ability to share between clinics, between departments and between health organisations, we now have a very disparate system. In this day and age where banks and other organisations are able to use technologies, I think health is a long way behind. When you have still got doctors using snail mail and taking three weeks to send referral letters—for example, between GPs and specialists—especially if you have got the case of a pregnant woman, which obviously has a fairly tight time line for care needing to be adhered to, the technology should be able to give the doctors, nurses and health professionals the confidence to be able to share information with their privacy guaranteed. So whilst I absolutely think this is really good, I think the Department of Health and Human Services under the Minister for Health could work a lot harder in this area, because in this day and age it does not make a lot of sense that we do not have the nicely streamlined information sharing with privacy guaranteed.

In my own electorate we have got 72—by the last count; actually it is probably more—specialists in our area, which is something to be very proud of. The reason we have 72 specialists is that it is a great part of the world to live. But when you have got the Warrnambool Base Hospital, which has been needing stage 2 done for five years now since the Labor government have been in power, being completely ignored, it is very hard to attract new general surgeons, nursing staff, occupational therapists, speech therapists—any health professionals—to the region when you are asking the staff to operate in very cramped spaces. It is not only a problem for Warrnambool but also a problem for Portland—two very important health organisations.

I think what we see is the Labor government forgetting that they have responsibility for the regions as well as the city. Although maybe with what we are seeing with the Austin Health announcement today, where 20 theatres are actually closed because of contamination because they have been asking for an upgrade to the decontamination washing of instruments system that they have, is that the health area is no longer a priority of this government. This bill will do some things to improve that, as I said, in the information sharing area, but we have got to do a lot more.

When I was on the perinatal inquiry one of the recommendations that we all put together, which was from both sides of government, was to make sure the Victorian government review and increase the incentives in place for attracting and retaining health professionals in rural and regional Victoria to establish a more effective range of incentives to support a sustainable workforce. Well, we are certainly not seeing their own recommendations being addressed, because just yesterday the CEO of the Australian College of Nursing, Kylie Ward, said at Warrnambool that there would be thousands of vacancies for nurses by 2030 and the health outcomes for people living in regional areas would be negatively affected.

The recommendation around the government having a strategic look at workforce capability was another one of the recommendations coming out of the perinatal inquiry that has not been enacted by this government. So you can talk the talk, but you can put your money where your mouth is as well. So you have got the Warrnambool Base Hospital desperately needing the accident and emergency department and theatres to be invested in because the staff who are working very, very hard under very constrained conditions are really begging for that. Why would you want to come to work in Warrnambool at a hospital that is really quite compromised and also does not have the nurse-patient ratios that the government prior to this election committed to? Still they are waiting. So if you work in Melbourne in the cardiac area, for example, I think it is four patients to one cardiac nurse, yet in Warrnambool it is five patients to one cardiac nurse. I will tell you now: if you have got five acute myocardial infarction patients or someone with cardiomyopathy, or whatever the cardiac condition is that you are looking after, the patients in Melbourne are exactly the same as the patients in Warrnambool, so why is the ratio different?

The government obviously understand that—that is why they made that commitment—but it is all talk. They actually have not delivered on that, and the Warrnambool Base Hospital are struggling to attract the staff. I know that we are already getting nurses at Mercy Place, one of the elderly residential homes, who are having to be flown up for night duty shifts. So we really do have opportunities there. It is important that the government recognises its responsibilities to health all across the state. That is a priority for this government, as they say it is, but we are not seeing it in action.

On this day, R U OK? Day, it kind of amazes me that we hear that the Minister for Health in the other place has determined that the primary care partnerships (PCPs) are not going to be funded anymore. They talk about information sharing. Well, the South West Alliance of Rural Health established the information and technology committee that sat under the PCP when I sat on the PCP some years ago, so it was about information sharing and it was about making sure things were more streamlined in health. Our PCP at the moment has a priority of suicide prevention. As my colleague the member for Lowan said earlier, in the country we know what our gaps are that we have to fill, and that is what the PCP is doing really well. But today of all days we hear that the PCP funding has been cut—when suicide prevention is actually their priority. We all know that it is an area that we need to be focusing on. The mental health services in my area are really stretched for two reasons: they do not get the resources and attracting staff to the region is really hard.

With the schools, I have got a school in Portland that is desperate. It is an independent school—it is not a government school—but the children there are needing support. All children need support. The government has an obligation to all the children from all schools because at the end of the day if we closed all the independent and Catholic schools, the impost would be on the government system and it would not work. We have got students in Portland whose principal has spoken to me many times. I have asked her to put a submission to the mental health inquiry, which she has done, because we are just not coping. We need to get the resources there to have somebody come in and case manage and help assist the teachers with these students, who are trying in extraordinary, challenging circumstances due to mental health challenges and stressors from their life outside school. It is putting too great a burden on the system, on the children and on the school.

We do not oppose the bill, and I do think it is great to see improvements in health sharing—and anything that improves that—but I think there is a lot more we can do. There are technologies available that the government needs to be investigating more, with more determination. As I say, there are plenty of innovative businesses around the world that are using technology for information sharing much more effectively than the health system is. When you have got a department of health available to do this, I ask the question: what are they doing? It always amuses me when you go into a new hospital and they have got different policies than the last hospital. Where my sister-in-law works in New South Wales the policies are the same from one hospital to the next hospital, which makes sense. Clearly you will change procedures according to your needs, but why have different policies? So the department, I think, under the minister’s direction could do more there.

My final points are: please fund the Warrnambool Base Hospital and address the work shortage of health professionals, particularly the nurses and doctors in our region. Portland hospital is an incredibly important service that needs to be given the attention of what it delivers for our region, and it is time to stop ignoring the regions, say what you mean and deliver on your promises.