The Kevin Rudd government in Australia is going slow on its promised GP super clinics, aimed at reducing pressure on hospitals. It has signed up just two against the promised 12, and even the two could start functioning until late next year.
In its election campaign last year, the Labor party had positioned the super clinics as one of its flagship health promises.
The plan seeks to create one-stop health shops by forming teams of general practitioners, nurses, pharmacists and other health workers to tackle complex medical problems and relieve the pressure on overcrowded hospital emergency departments.
The Department of Health and Ageing acknowledges in its annual report that it only has funding agreements in place for clinics in the Victorian towns of Ballan and Bendigo - well short of the six sites it had expected to commission by September.
Labor in Opposition promised capital funding to establish 12 super clinics in 2007-08, 10 in 2008-09, four in 2009-10 and three in 2010-11, in the election costings it published under the Charter of Budget Honesty.
The party's costing assumption was that a dozen clinics would be up and running next year. But Senate estimate hearings were told last month that building had not started at either of the initial Victorian sites, and the clinics were unlikely to be operational before late next year.
The Government had signalled the timelines were slipping in the May budget, when it pushed the program's funding out to a fifth year (2011-12), and added another $50 million and at least one more super clinic to the cost of its election pledge.
A spokesman for Health Minister Nicola Roxon said yesterday she had made it clear the Government would consult the local community for each of the 31 super clinics. "The Government remains committed to delivering all 31 GP super clinics over the next four financial years," the spokesman said.
Australian Medical Association national president Rosanna Capolingua said the delays reflected the flaws behind the super clinics concept, which could "unfairly compete against nearby private practices and compromise patient safety."
She asserted there were better alternatives to the super clinics.
"We're asking the Government to use some of the super clinic money to assist general practices in employing nurses," she told ABC.
"There is a payment that goes to rural and remote GPs in Australia to help them employ nurses.
"We're suggesting that that be extended across Australia and into the metropolitan area as well," she said.
"We know that patients want to be able to get in to see their GP and money invested in General Practice, existing General Practice clinics can certainly assist them in doing that so they may not be tempted to end up going to an ED."