AMA withdraws from NT intervention

June 21, 2008

In a blow to the Northern Territory intervention policy, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) announced on June 15 that it will pull out of recruiting medical staff for the program, which it argued the government was dramatically underfunding.

The intervention targets remote Aboriginal communities in the NT. Under the legislation, 50% of welfare recipients' payments are replaced with gift cards, widespread bans on alcohol and pornography are enforced and the federal government has the right to compulsorily acquire Aboriginal land. It also enacted compulsory medical examinations for young Aboriginal people.

When the intervention was announced in July 2007, then prime minister John Howard called for doctors to go to remote communities and check Aboriginal children for signs of sexual abuse. When medical experts claimed that this invasive examination would in fact constitute sexual abuse, the examinations were downgraded to general health checks that could "incidently" find cases of neglect or sexual abuse.

The AMA recruited doctors to carry out the examinations, at a recruitment cost of $1300 each, however — a year after the intervention began and with the medical examinations all but completed — the AMA has said it will no longer recruit doctors for the project until the federal government provides adequate funding for those who decide to sign up.

Quoted by ABC Online on June 17, Dr Lawrence Wapnah claimed that the intervention was underpaying doctors who were part of the intervention: "Six hundred and fifty dollars a day is a reasonable sum of money, but my normal rates for seeing a patient is $60. In a couple of hours, one has earnt that sort of money, so obviously there is a pro bono sort of component. If one wants to sustain the program, one has to pay doctors at least what they would earn sitting at home in a practice."

In addition, more doctors are claiming that the medical aspects of the intervention are a waste of resources. Two pediatricians, Dr Rose Roseby who works in Alice Springs, and Dr Andrew White who worked there until recently, wrote on on June 16 that the intervention has diverted resources from badly needed follow-up medical services in remote communities in the NT to compulsory examinations whose value is dubious at best.

"The big problem is focusing on health checks without resourcing and developing the primary care programs needed to manage the health problems that were already well documented. Our experience is that when quality services are provided in communities, uptake from Aboriginal children and their families is actually high.

"Most of the health issues looked for in the checks need comprehensive continuous programs from primary health care, not once-off (or even annual) checks", they wrote.

Labor has come under fire for its budget, which, while claiming to be a budget that supports the "Close the gap" campaign to tackle Indigenous health problems, still underfunds Aboriginal health in spending terms by some $200 million annually, according to a report by the National Indigenous Times on May 29.

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