Anthony Albanese is set to announce Labor’s first major health commitment of the election campaign: $135m to trial 50 new urgent care clinics meant to ease pressure on hospitals.
The clinics will be based at GP surgeries and community health centres in at least 50 locations across the country. Labor says they will be modelled on a similar scheme operating in New Zealand.
Wednesday’s announcement in Melbourne comes as Labor rolls out a series of health policies and Albanese seeks to refocus his campaign on the party’s key messages of Medicare, aged care and childcare after a rocky start to his campaign.
Labor this week has also announced it will restore a 50% loading for telehealth psychiatric services for regional and urban areas at a cost of $31m and pledged a $1.5m boost to child hearing services.
Strengthening Medicare and “making it easier to see a doctor” are among Labor’s key campaign messages – but the party has been saving its key health announcements for closer to polling day on 21 May.
Albanese said the provision of bulk-billed urgent medical care would allow families to see a doctor without needing to visit over-burdened hospital emergency departments.
“Labor’s Medicare urgent care clinics will mean more families will get top-quality care from a nurse or a doctor without having to wait in a hospital emergency department,” he said.
“These clinics are a key part of Labor’s plan to strengthen Medicare by making it easier to see a doctor.”
The clinics – which will be built in every state and territory – would be able to treat sprains and broken bones, cuts, wounds, insect bites, minor ear and eye problems and minor burns.
They would be open seven days a week from at least 8am to 10pm which is the time when most non-life-threatening injuries occur, the opposition says.
The issue of strained hospital emergency departments has become a growing problem for state governments, with ambulance ramping – when an emergency crew is unable to transfer their patients into hospital within a clinically acceptable time – becoming more prevalent as a result of surging demand. The recent South Australian election saw Labor successfully campaign on the issue of ambulance ramping, while it has also become a political issue in WA and Queensland.
According to the Australian Medical Association, there is a chronic underfunding of public hospitals resulting in an “access crisis” that is the worst it has been in 30 years.
“We have heard stories of people dying waiting to be seen in public hospitals that are operating at breaking point, and ambulance ramping at public hospitals because there aren’t enough beds and staff to cope with demand,” the AMA said in its pre-budget submission.
In New Zealand, urgent care clinics deal with about 2.5m consultations a year, with the country having the lowest rate of emergency department attendance per capita in the developed world.
According to the Royal New Zealand College of Urgent Care, New Zealand has an ED attendance rate each year of 230 for every 1,000 people, compared with 330 in Australia.
Labor’s shadow health minister, Mark Butler, said the policy was a “practical, tangible” example of Labor’s commitment to strengthen Medicare and make it easier for families to access care.
“Medicare is the bedrock of our health system and by using it to help take the pressure off hospital emergency departments we make can the whole system stronger,” he said.