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15 Apr 2014

The Federal Government has acted to stem the flow of funds to the troubled GP Super Clinics program, suspending payment for three clinics that are yet to be built and assessing its options regarding a further dozen facilities.

In a development welcomed by the AMA, the Daily Telegraph has reported that about $25 million earmarked for planned GP Super Clinics in Darwin, Brisbane and the outer-Perth locale Rockingham, has been withheld by Health Minister Peter Dutton as the Government assesses how to scale down the controversial program.

According to the newspaper, work was yet to commence on any of the three clinics, and the Government plans to audit progress on a further 12 facilities to determine how advanced they are in construction, and what opportunities exist to axe or wind down the projects.

The previous Labor Government had committed $600 million to build 64 clinics which it claimed would fill gaps in primary care services in particular communities.

But the program has come under heavy criticism from the AMA, including for the fact that several clinics were established in areas already served by privately-run GP practices, and that the large sums involved in setting up the Super Clinics could be used far more efficiently and effectively by increasing support for general practitioners.

“The GP Super Clinics have proved to be anything but super,” AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton said. “They have absorbed huge amounts of valuable health funding that would have been better spent in other ways in the health system.”

Dr Hambleton said they were supposed to provide primary health care services in areas where patients had limited access to GPs, but many had been built in places where they were directly competing with successful, long-established practices.

The AMA’s concerns were borne out by an Australian National Audit Office report which found that the program has been dogged by serious cost overruns and lengthy delays, and many of the clinics had been built in areas already well served by doctors and other health professionals.

The Auditor-General found that only three of the 36 clinics promised in 2007 were completed on time, and as at mid-2013 seven were still not operational, while just one of the 28 announced in 2010 was fully functional.

Mr Dutton told the Daily Telegraph the program was a shambles: “When you think of Super Clinics, think pink batts, cash giveaways and NBN.”

The Minister said that not only had the scheme chewed up hundreds of millions of dollars, it had “cannibalised existing doctor practices and undermined the opportunity for young doctors to buy into those practices”.

Mr Dutton told The Australian the flawed design and implementation of the program limited the Government’s ability to retrieve much of the money committed to the scheme.

He said the program’s design meant the Government did not own the clinics, and instead paid upfront for services to be provided at the clinics under 2-year service contracts.

The Minister said because all of the money was paid upfront it meant there was no mechanism for the Government to enforce service standards such as through on-going performance-based payments.

And the terms of the contracts meant they could only be altered with the agreement of both signatories, limiting the scope to alter terms or withdraw altogether.

Chair of the AMA Council of General Practice Dr Brian Morton told The Australian the program had been an inefficient use of scarce health funds.

Dr Morton said the enormous sums invested in the scheme could have been used far more effectively by providing infrastructure grants and other support for GPs to upgrade technology and expand access to allied health care.

Under the Primary Care Infrastructure Grants program, $117 million has been allocated over four years to upgrade 425 GP facilities. By contrast, the Auditor-General found that two GP Super Clinics alone had cost taxpayers $50 million, and several more had needed substantial top-up funding.

Dr Morton said it would be good to see program wound up immediately, and any unspent funds redirected to boost general practice.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 15 Apr 2014