Rural health pleads with Abbott not to withdraw services

THE rural health sector has urged the Abbott Government's Commission of Audit not to withdraw services from remote and regional areas as part of its mission to make the government more efficient.  

National Rural Health Alliance executive director Gordon Gregory said the sector feared a potential withdrawal of services if the audit recommended widespread cuts.  

He said doctors and health workers in regional and remote areas were afraid the audit may recommend handing over some services to the private sector - to the detriment of rural Australia.  

Mr Gregory said there was already a $2.1 billion deficit in providing health services in rural Australia - a problem which could grow if programs were withdrawn.  

While the audit has been tasked with finding budget savings and making government more efficient, Mr Gregory said there was a greater need for services in remote areas.  

"Our fear is that in a root and branch review of the system, [rural health programs] might get reduced in the same proportion as metropolitan services," he said.  

"While the market in some regional areas does provide services like regional hospitals, commerciality cannot be the only principle guiding the audit."   Mr Gregory said much of remote Australia did not have a big enough population to make providing health services commercial and the government needed to continue to play a role.  

"We already know some of the things they can do to improve the budget, such as changes to taxation, but they mustn't put all their eggs in the cuts and savings basket," he said.  

"That strategy always disadvantages the most disadvantaged, and when it comes to health, many of those people live in rural and remote areas."  

While the audit has also been asked to consider a new $6 fee for people to visit their local GP, Mr Gregory said he did not believe it was appropriate to comment on that issue until it was clear what the government's plans were.  

Health Minister Peter Dutton has previously said changes needed to be made, as the government was facing the rising costs of an aging population.  

It is understood no decision would be made on the proposed fee or other potential changes to rural health services or Medicare until the commission completes its report.