Shire fights to save doctors
By Michael Sinclair-Jones
HIGH-LEVEL talks to attract new doctors to Toodyay are underway after last month’s shock revelation that the town’s medical centre will close by the end of November.
GP service provider Wheatbelt Health Network announced at the end of last month that it would cease operating in Toodyay “no later than November 30”.
Toodyay’s medical crisis was due to be raised with Federal National Party leaders at a state party conference in Perth last month and at a WA Local Government Association State Council meeting on September 8-9.
The Northam-based Wheatbelt Health Network provides Toodyay with two part-time GPs and one part-time nurse practitioner who operate as independent contractors.Read more
Each of the three practitioners sees up to 40 patients a day, and hundreds every week.
The medical centre also provides physiotherapy services to up to 20 patients a week, and dozens of Clinipath Pathology blood and other tests for illnesses such as cancer and other infections.
The not-for-profit business employs one nurse and two reception staff who will get an option to move to the network’s ‘Super Clinic’ in Northam by the end of November.
Toodyay’s GP service has operated rent-free for the past 10 years at the Alma Beard Medical Centre in Stirling Terrace, which is owned by Toodyay ratepayers.
The shire first realised last May that the centre might close when the Network declined to sign a contract for a new lease after operating on a month-by-month basis when a previous lease expired in 2017.
There has been a high turnover of Toodyay doctors in recent years, with some reportedly leaving after disputes with management.
Wheatbelt Health Network CEO Catherine Milliner – who took over in August last year – said running the centre “has become even harder as a result of reducing incentives for doctors to work in regional areas and the increased cost of living and wages with no corresponding increase in the Medicare rebate”.
The Federal Government pays a rebate to subsidise the cost of GP services, some of which are bulk-billed at no cost to patients and others for which doctors charge a ‘gap fee’ to offset unreimbursed costs.
The Federal Government increased its Medicare rebate in July by 65c to $39.75 for a standard GP consultation after freezing the rebate for six of the previous nine years.
Australia’s Royal College of GPs said the rebate should be $80 to keep pace with inflation and warned that such a small increase would further accelerate the loss of doctors from rural and regional Australia.
Toodyay Shire President Rosemary Madacsi, who is the WA Local Government Association’s Avon Zone representative, said she would raise Toodyay’s doctor crisis at the association’s next State Council meeting in Mandurah on September 8-9.
The shire was working on several fronts to find an alternative doctor for Toodyay but the responsibility belonged to State and Federal Government, not local government, she said.
Local State Labor MP Darren West agreed, saying Toodyay had a big enough population to sustain a local doctor service but he had a “fundamental issue” with local government being required to provide it.
It was costing shires like Goomalling hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
“It’s a Federal Government responsibility to provide doctors and the State’s responsibility to provide services,” he said.
Doctors were in short supply everywhere, and he would talk to the State Government’s WA Country Health Service and the shire about what could be done.
Local MP and WA Nationals Deputy Leader Shane Love said he would raise the issue with Federal Nationals Leader David Littleproud, Senate Leader Bridget McKenzie and other colleagues at this month’s WA Nationals State Conference.
He said it was untenable not to have a doctor in Toodyay, particularly with so many older residents needing access to a local GP and other medical services.
Other towns such as Dongara, Dalwallinu, Bindoon, Gingin and Three Springs all had doctors.
“This needs to be raised at a higher level of government but at the moment it’s been left to the shire,” Mr Love said.
Toodyay pharmacy co-owner Philip Carr said any GP closure in Toodyay would affect business but the pharmacy would stay open.
“Patients who see a GP in Northam still need to get their prescriptions filled, and many have repeat prescriptions,” he said.
Clinipath Pathology did not respond to Herald calls for comment.