Kiama residents will lose their access to bulk-billed, after-hours, home visits from Radio Doctor Illawarra from the end of September.
The medical deputising service has operated in the Illawarra for 44 years, expanding to Kiama to meet demand just four years ago.
Yet Radio Doctor Illawarra general manager Frank Wallner said Federal government cuts to Medicare rebates for after-hours house calls from March 1 had forced the service to withdraw from the municipality.
“We’re very disappointed to have to do this – it had been quite a process to get the service running in that area and local doctors had been delighted we were able to start coverage,” he said.
“We will still cover all the suburbs from Scarborough to Shell Cove/ Dunmore, but the government cuts to rebates plus the loss of a grant, means the Kiama service is no longer viable.”
Mr Wallner said the not-for-profit co-operative had already struggled to attract doctors to work after-hours, and since the cuts their pool of doctors had diminished from 18 to 12.
“Furthermore since March we have had a decline of 15 per cent in our doctor home visits compared to the previous year,” he said.
“Our concerns have always been that if people don’t have access to after-hours medical deputising services like ours, they’ll be forced to head to hospital emergency departments with non-critical injuries and illnesses.”
Those concerns seemed to be backed up by figures released this week which revealed a spike in ED presentations at the region’s hospitals from April to June.
For instance despite a far milder flu season than that experienced in 2017, Wollongong Hospital ED presentations increased by over seven per cent to 17,067. Of those numbers the majority (6951) were semi-urgent cases.
Radio Doctor Illawarra chairman Dr Darryl Bryant called the government cuts a “backwards step”.
“It’s disappointing that we have to shave our services to meet our financial demands – disappointing for the people that live here, for holidaymakers who need medical attention, and for the GPs we’re providing a service for,” he said.
Kiama doctors have also expressed concerns at the loss of the service. “Local doctors will again have to be on call nights, weekends and public holidays,” Kiama GP Dr David Grant said.
“This is very demanding and can place a lot of strain on doctors many of whom have family commitments or have worked many years being on call. Contracting after-hours coverage to Radio Doctor Illawarra was a very satisfactory solution.”
After October 1, Kiama residents needing after-hours medical support should contact their local GP, HealthDirect on 1800 022 222 or, if urgent, attend an ED.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has said the government changes followed a comprehensive review of the after-hours sector, conducted by the Medicare Benefits Schedule Review Taskforce.