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09 Oct 2018

BY AMA PRESIDENT DR TONY BARTONE

I recently had the honour of addressing the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association (AIDA) Conference in Perth.

It was exciting to be in the presence of so many passionate people who are committed to achieving significant and meaningful change.

But, even in 21st century Australia, their (and our) goals and objectives face many hurdles.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face adversity in many aspects of their lives.

There is arguably no greater indicator of disadvantage than the appalling state of Indigenous health.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are needlessly sicker, and are dying much younger than their non-Indigenous peers.

What is even more disturbing is that many of these health problems and deaths stem from preventable causes.

There are many groups and organisations dedicated fulltime to changing things – AIDA, NACCHO, the Medical Colleges, the universities, AMSA, the nurses and midwives, and other foundations and agencies. Too many to mention, but all worthy.

The AMA places improving Indigenous health always as a major priority in our advocacy.

I see our role more as a catalyst for political action.

We have significant influence within Federal politics in Canberra across the whole spectrum of health.

We have policy, much of it contained in our annual Report Cards. And we respond to policy or funding announcements – or lack of them – at Budget time. Tragically, we have seen more cuts than top-ups. Funding is going backwards.

The core of AMA policy is proper funding for proven targeted programs and services that are delivered in a community-controlled way.

But, as we all know, the battle to gain meaningful and lasting improvements has been long and hard, and it continues.

The statistics speak for themselves: 

  • A life expectancy gap of around 10 years remains between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians.
  • The death rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is still more than double the rate for non-Indigenous children.
  • Preventable admissions and deaths are three times higher in ATSI people.
  • Medicare expenditure is about half the needs-based requirements, and PBS expenditure is about one third the needs-based requirements. 

On top of this, we have the Closing the Gap targets to map progress – or measure failure. 

The latest data indicate that only three of the seven Closing the Gap targets are on track to be met.

The target to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018 is on track.

The target to have 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 is on track.

The target to close the gap in school attendance by 2018 is not on track.

The target to halve the gap in reading and numeracy by 2018 is not on track.

The target to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment by 2020 is on track.

The target to halve the gap in employment by 2018 is not on track.

The target to close the gap in life expectancy by 2031 is not on track.

Three out of seven is not good.

This is a potent political message to get the attention of the major parties and the broader Australian community – the voters.

And we now have a significant opportunity to advocate strongly for Government action to do better – a Federal Election is drawing closer.

The coming months are the perfect time to campaign and advocate to improve the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.

Everybody knows that health policy changes votes. The Coalition almost lost Government in 2016 because of health policy.

It is not surprising that we are presently seeing a much higher profile for health issues.

We currently have a renewed focus on aged care. The Government has announced a Royal Commission.

The Government has announced more funding for meningococcal vaccine.

There is an ongoing review of the Medicare Benefits Schedule. Changes to private health insurance will be announced soon.

The Health Minister relishes making regular ‘good news’ announcements of new drugs and treatments under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme – the PBS.

And there will be a bidding war on public hospital funding, just like we saw on MRI machines.

All these things cost money – lots of money. No doubt there will be more significant funding announcements across the health portfolio in the next six to nine months.

We must ensure that Indigenous health gets its fair share.

The AMA has repeatedly said that it is not credible that Australia, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, cannot address the health and social justice issues that affect three per cent of its citizens.

We will continue to work with all governments and all political parties to improve health and life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The AMA will make Indigenous health an election issue.


Published: 09 Oct 2018