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Victorian community health organisations, hit by budget cuts, warn against 'short-sighted' changes

Victorian community health organisations, hit by budget cuts, warn against 'short-sighted' changes

ABC News
16 April 2023

Victorian community health organisations say they have been blindsided by news that their services will see funding cuts in the next financial year, warning the "short-sighted" decision could see vital programs lost.

Chief executives from organisations across the state said they were contacted on Friday by the Department of Health to inform the of impending budget cuts.

Some organisations are bracing for cuts of up to 15 per cent, primarily from health promotion services.

The preventative health services facing cuts included programs aimed at helping people quit vaping and smoking, healthy eating education, disability inclusion and family violence prevention.

Jayne Nelson, chief executive of IPC Health, described the news as "devastating, really disappointing".

Ms Nelson she was still waiting to find out how much her organisation based in Melbourne's west would lose in funding.

"It will mean a staffing cut, most likely, and a cut in those programs that are being delivered in local communities," she said.

Access Health & Community chief executive Anna Robinson said it was "an incredibly short-sighted decision".

"In real terms, what this is going to mean is less services to people at a time when they need them most," she said.

"We're calling on government today to reverse these short-sighted cuts that will ultimately end up costing taxpayers millions of dollars more in increased hospitalisations down the track."

Ms Robinson is also the chair of the Community Health First campaign, which brings together the 24 chief executives of community health services from across the state.

"[The cuts] equates to millions of dollars of health promotion funding that our organisations are using to reach some of the most-vulnerable members of our communities," she said.

DPV Health's Rick Jackson said his organisation's 20 community health clinics "work in a diverse community, very highly disadvantaged communities, who are very vulnerable".

"And, unfortunately, the outcomes will be the community will suffer and chronic disease will continue to grow and increase the cost across the community," he said.

In a statement, a Victorian government spokesperson said the changes to services "were elements of last year's Budget now being implemented — they do not represent a cut to health services".

Premier Daniel Andrews said the upcoming cuts were flagged in previous budgets and were due to "a whole lot of services that were basically double-ups", especially as new local public health units were funded across the state.

"We've got all manner of different programs that are being delivered, and we don't need multiple different services providing the same thing," he said.

However, Ms Robinson said the first time the services had been told about the cuts was on Friday.

"We're unclear why we weren't notified if the decision was made in advance of Friday," she said.

After about 20 years of working in the sector, the Australian Health Promotion Association's David Towl said it was highly unusual to be told about funding changes in such a way.

"The cut might be $3 million to $5 million, which is a very small amount in the broader health budget. But health promotion, it's a one-to-14 ratio, $1 spent is $14 saved."

Mr Andrews said he was not aware of how the organisations had been contacted and downplayed questions about whether the cuts could have been better communicated.

"I make no apology for being focused on COVID catch-up," he said.

Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas said the government had invested millions of dollars in local public health units, which had grown out of COVID-19 necessity and proved to be "very effective".

"As Victorians would expect, we look at our programs and we assess what's working and what's not. And we certainly don't want to see duplication of effort when we can invest our money more wisely," she said.

The premier was speaking with the health minister at the government-funded Glen Waverley Priority Primary Care Centre (PPCC), one of 21 PPCCs built in recent years, with another four under construction.

Responding to questions about the community health cuts, Mr Andrews pointed to the PPCCs as evidence his government was investing in local and statewide health.

The state is borrowing a record amount to fix the beleaguered health system, which was struggling even before COVID-19 hit.

These PPCCs are free of charge and are aimed at diverting people from stretched emergency departments to treat common conditions and provide diagnostic testing and medical imaging.

State government statistics show about 42,000 patients had been through the network since it was established, with 21,000 of those saying they would have been at an emergency department if not for the centre.

"It was the promise of Medicare and it's not been delivered," Mr Andrews said.

Mr Andrews also took aim at what he called a "broken" Medicare system and said it was time the Commonwealth stepped up.

"It's simply not sustainable, or anywhere near good enough, for Medicare rates, bulk-billing rates, to be falling. Bulk billing doctors [are] becoming harder and harder to find, [with] everyone having to pay gaps, everybody having to pay out of pocket, for what should be a universal free, fast and local service," he said.

Medicare reform is expected to be the main item on the agenda at the upcoming National Cabinet meeting.

Mr Andrews said he would not be drawn on speculation about the upcoming state budget, but said all the state's commitments would be funded.

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