Monica Doumit: Don’t get sick in the bush!

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“Rural, regional and remote patients have significantly poorer health outcomes, greater incidents of chronic disease and greater premature deaths when compared to their counterparts in metropolitan areas

There is not much in NSW Parliament that can bring together the members of the government, the opposition and the crossbench, but cognitive dissonance when it comes to regional and rural health care appears to be one of them.

Just six days before the NSW Legislative Council voted 20-17 in favour to legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide, a committee of that same Legislative Council handed down its final report into health outcomes and access to health and hospital services in rural, regional and remote parts of the state. The report followed an 18-month long inquiry that included 15 public hearings, many of these heard in regional centres.

The 22 committee findings revealed just how alarming the state of care is in regional and rural NSW, and the significant disparity of care between these areas and metropolitan Sydney.

The first of the committee findings was “that rural, regional and remote patients have significantly poorer health outcomes, greater incidents of chronic disease and greater premature deaths when compared to their counterparts in metropolitan areas.”

Another finding was “that residents living in rural, regional and remote communities face significant financial challenges in order to access diagnosis, treatment and other health services compared to those living in metropolitan cities,” with the costs to cancer patients “resulting in patients experiencing severe financial distress and/or choosing to skip life-saving cancer treatments.”

It’s a very grim picture.

Nationals MLC Bronnie Taylor, Minister for Regional Health, told media that she does not walk away from the challenges in health care, assuring people that she was “ready to fix these issues.”

Six days later, she cast her vote in favour of euthanasia, ensuring that even if cancer patients in the regions cannot access chemotherapy, they will at least be able to access lethal drugs.

Legislative Assembly members who voted in favour of euthanasia also used the report’s release to – without a hint of irony – express their concern for regional health.

Deputy chair of the committee that conducted the inquiry, the Animal Justice Party’s Emma Hurst MLC, commented that rural NSW residents were being “treated like second-class citizens.” Days after this media grandstanding, she cast her vote to enable these “second-class citizens” to be euthanised. Ironically, Ms Hurst also successfully introduced a bill that put additional safeguards in place before animals could be euthanised, a step towards her party’s goal of limiting the euthanasia of animals for medical necessity only.

Not to be outdone, the Greens’ health spokesperson, Cate Faehrmann MLC (who was also part of the committee), urged the government and opposition to “put politics aside” to see the committee’s recommendations put in place. One of those committee recommendations was for a plan to make palliative care access and services in the regions equivalent to that available in metropolitan Sydney.

Yet days later, she spoke and voted against an amendment that would have required those seeking euthanasia to have had the ability to consult with a specialist palliative medicine physician.

“We heard so many stories of people not being able to access the healthcare they need when they need it, whether it be simply booking an appointment with a GP in their town, needing a doctor when they visited the emergency ward at their local hospital or accessing life-saving cancer treatment because of outrageously high out-of-pocket costs,” Ms Faehrmann said, less than a week before casting a vote to ensure those without access to healthcare were able to request death instead.

Ms Faehrmann went on: “One of the more disturbing issues that surfaced during the inquiry, and indeed, through the pandemic more broadly, was that NSW Health employees risk their careers if they speak out about issues in the workplace.” One of the committee’s findings was that “there is a culture of fear operating within NSW Health in relation to employees speaking out and raising concerns and issues about patient safety, staff welfare and inadequate resources.”

So much for transparency…

Yet, she and her Greens colleagues voted against every single amendment that sought to place more transparency and accountability in the administration of the euthanasia regime.

Legislative Assembly members who voted in favour of euthanasia also used the report’s release to – without a hint of irony – express their concern for regional health.

Labor’s Ryan Park, the Shadow Minister for Health, said that “the health care needs of those living outside our major metropolitan cities” needed to be put front and centre. He also voted for the euthanasia and assisted suicide bill.

The Nationals’ Adam Marshall said the report “vindicates everything the community and I have been saying about the dire lack of health services and resourcing which is putting patient’s lives at risk.”

Independent MP for Murray, Helen Dalton, organised a community forum in her electorate to discuss the committee report and the rural health crisis and spoke of the “horror stories” the report contained. She was also co-sponsor of the euthanasia bill.

Health Minister Brad Hazzard, another supporter of the bill who appeared at the same community forum, told a woman whose husband waited 10 weeks for an ultrasound and biopsy to diagnose his cancer that he would “like to see everywhere get the quickest possible services.”

Liberals, Nationals, Labor, Greens, Animal Justice Party and Independents. Each of them has made political mileage out of the recent committee report by either making promises or calling others to action on better health care for regional, rural and remote parts of the state; they just didn’t care enough themselves to prioritise the provision of this care over the provision of lethal drugs.