Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be exempt from any health co-payments to prevent any backward steps in Aboriginal health, said the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) today.
NACCHO Chair Justin Mohamed said the introduction of co-payments for basic health care such as GP visits and medicines, as recommended by the Commission of Audit, would increase barriers for many Aboriginal people to look after their own health.
“Improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health remains one of Australia’s biggest challenges,” Mr Mohamed said.
“Increasing barriers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people seeking appropriate health care will only increase this challenge.
“We need initiatives that will encourage Aboriginal people to seek medical attention and seek it early, not make it even harder for them to get the care they need.”
Mr Mohamed said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders often had a range of complex health issues so even a low co-payment charge could make health care unaffordable for many.
“For people who only visit their GP once a year a small co-payment is likely to be manageable,” Mr Mohamed said.
“However for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with more complex health needs even a $5 charge for each visit would add up very quickly.
“A large Aboriginal family could be out of pocket hundreds of dollars after just a few GP visits.
“This would put basic health care out of reach and be detrimental to the health of many Aboriginal people.
“I urge the government to carefully consider the implications before implementing this recommendation and to ensure any decision is not going to mean a backward step for the health of Aboriginal people.”
The leaders of the national representative body for indigenous people have vowed to continue as a ”fearless” voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, despite the Abbott government indicating it is likely to cut its funding.
The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples was set up in 2010 with an initial Commonwealth funding allocation of $29.2 million over five years. While it was envisaged that the organisation would become financially self-sufficient over time, it is yet to reach this stage.
In the May budget, the Gillard government provided a further $15 million in funding to flow over three years from July next year, but Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion met the group’s co-chairs on Wednesday and told them it was unlikely they would receive the $15 provided for by Labor.
But in a statement issued late on Thursday, Congress co-chairs Kirstie Parker and Les Malezer promised the organisation would continue to fight.
”The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples promised its members and supporters today that it will continue as a strong, fearless national representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples,” the statement said.
”The new government has shown that they do not support real decision making for our families and communities through a national representative body chosen by our Peoples, for our Peoples.”
The statement said Congress would hold urgent meetings with members and would continue to build partnerships with other Australians to build a sustainable financial base for the organisation. It would also continue to increase its membership.
Labor’s spokesman on indigenous affairs, Shayne Neumann said the move brought into question Tony Abbott’s promise to be a Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs.
Mr Neumann contrasted the treatment of Congress with the government’s decision to provide $1 million to set up an indigenous advisory council chaired by former ALP president Warren Mundine.
”What Tony Abbott is proposing to do is slash funding to a body of elected indigenous representatives while spending $1 million to establish a hand-picked Ministerial Advisory Committee in its place,” he said.
Mr Mundine said this was ”nonsense” as his committee was not intended to be a representative body, but was created to provide policy advice to government.
Stressing he was expressing a personal view, Mr Mundine said he had always thought the funding provided to Congress was excessive, and in a tight budgetary situation, the additional funding promised by Labor could be better spent on other priorities in the indigenous affairs portfolio.
Senator Scullion said no decision had been made about the organisation’s funding, and the decision about future funding would be made as part of the budget process, after the Commission of Audit reports.
”However, I did stress that it was highly unlikely that funding would be approved as the government moves funding to frontline services to focus on delivering real outcomes for first Australians,” Senator Scullion said.
”I felt it appropriate to advise Congress of this as early as possible so it could make plans for the future,” he said.
Senator Scullion said he had encouraged the organisation to use the $8.3 million remaining in its reserves to prepare for the future.
”There remains a role for Congress but it is important that it build membership from its current level of approximately 7500 and look to other sources of financial support in the future,” he said.
In April, Senator Scullion said he did not believe the organisation should receive Commonwealth funding because it made the peak body dependent.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda wrote recently that Congress should be given time to establish itself.
”Organisations evolve over time and I believe that Congress has the fundamentals for robust representation and good governance,” he wrote in his annual native title and social justice report.
In its submission to the Commission of Audit, Congress said while it had not yet achieved financial self-sustainability, it continued to ”work assiduously towards that goal”.
”Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples take the view that government has certain obligations towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and this includes supporting a strong, sustainable, representative voice for our Peoples,” the submission by Congress said.
Labor had promised to keep the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples funded with $15 million for another three years in this year’s May budget.
Since the election, the congress has hoped the Coalition would honour Labor’s pledge.
But Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said he had met the group’s co-chairs yesterday to warn them that was highly unlikely and they must look beyond the government for means of survival.
The edict came as Tony Abbott said last night that the referendum to acknowledge first Australians must surpass the apology and the 1967 referendum as a unifying moment for the nation.
In a speech to mark the 60th anniversary of law firm Arnold Block Leibler, the Prime Minister said “symbols” were important to reconciling with Aborigines.
He said too many had “felt like strangers” in the only land they had known. “The best thing we could do for Aboriginal Australia right now is push on as quickly as we can with constitutional recognition,” he said. “We have it in our hearts to do this.”
Senator Scullion told the congress’s co-chairs that while the final outcome would be determined by the Commission of Audit and be revealed at budget time, there was no appetite to keep them funded and they must use the next six months to plan for a future without federal funds.
“The circumstances are that the funding is unlikely, so I met with them and advised them that our priorities are frontline services and indicated that the principle reason that I don’t think they will keep getting funded was . . . we never committed to it during the election and our priorities are with our election commitments,” he said.
“I told them I wanted to tell them early to allow them to make financial plans. I told them I would lift restrictions on their current funds if I could.”
Senator Scullion said the co-chairs had asked whether the government would contract them for roles on a fee-for-service basis, and that he would consider it.
“I told them they had a role to represent the nation’s first people and they needed to grow their membership,” he said.
“I am very doubtful that a positive decision will be made on their funding and I think they need to start preparing for that.”
With its four-year federal funding deal to expire this year, the congress had written in a submission to the Abbott government that its Commission of Audit needed to recognise “the need for a sustainable independent national body” to ensure a voice for indigenous people.