A few years ago, together with two Aboriginal colleagues, I wrote about institutional racism in the Australian health care system.

In the last few months, reading some of the documentation around on the new Medicare Locals (or Primary Health Care Organisations — PHCOs) from the Department of Health and Aging, the Minister and the Australian General Practice Network (AGPN), it is evident that today such institutional racism is alive and well.

Indeed it is being built into the future of these PHCOs. In the current discussions on primary health care for the future in this country, the Aboriginal community controlled sector and its voice are being ignored.

The concern of that sector at not being invited to be engaged adequately in deliberations about the PHCOs is reflected in a recent media release here in the west from the Aboriginal Health Council of WA. That states, for example: “We are alarmed that there has been so little effort made by the minister and the Divisions of General Practice to involve our sector.”

I do not think this is sour grapes on their part. I share that view. The views of the Aboriginal community controlled sector are not being sought and not being heard by the Minister, by the department or by the AGPN.

The reason? The new PHCOs are being seen as just bigger if fewer GP Divisions, with a few bells and whistles (which have been forced to be?) added on. This is reflected in the fact that all 15 of the new PHCOs are to be GP Divisions-based and according to the recent discussion paper from the department on Medicare Locals the rest will be “largely” Divisions-based.

In her speech to the APGN Forum in Perth 10 days ago this Divisions-focus was confirmed by the Minister.

As one example (but there are many) in that speech, she stated that her department was engaging consultants “to develop a funding formula that will enable funding for Medicare Locals to be fairly distributed, taking into account the needs of different parts of Australia”.

According to the Minister the only body that the government will consult “before finalising the funding formula” is … the AGPN! No others seemingly and certainly no mention of consulting the Aboriginal community controlled sector on this funding formula.

But then, as the funding formula, according to the Minister, is to take into account only differences geographically (“the needs of different parts of Australia”) and there is no mention of the differing cultural needs of Australians, such as the special cultural needs of Aboriginal Australians, then maybe she feels no need to run the funding formula past the community controlled sector.

The discussion document is similarly neglectful of the community controlled sector.

Yes, it lists that sector as one of several with appropriate “skill-sets” that “complement those offered by the Divisions of General Practice Network”. But where is the recognition beyond “skill-sets” of the need to embrace the cultural base of the community controlled sector? Where is the acknowledgment that AMSs already often have the breadth of primary care that Divisions currently lack and which PHCOs are being asked to embrace?

It is noteworthy that the AGPN has set out some good principles, including on equity and on Aboriginal health, in its ‘blueprint document’ on PHCOs.

It is most unfortunate, however, that when AGPN comes to the operational end of things, as in its paper on a framework for PHCOs, both equity and Aboriginal issues are sadly neglected. When push comes to shove, the principles in the AGPN blueprint document thus turn out to be empty rhetoric.

There is still time for Minister Roxon and for AGPN to think again.

There remains a wonderful opportunity to build an exciting, fair and inclusive primary care sector in Australia. This needs to start with the idea of caring for patients and their health, sharing the vision with all relevant parties, including the Aboriginal community controlled sector, and embracing more firmly both equity and the social determinants of health.

Indeed I’d like to switch the letters round and have PHCOs become COPHs — Caring Organisations for People’s Health, even if not in name at least in principle and practice.

I suspect that is what Australian citizens want. It is just a pity they are not being asked.

Gavin Mooney is a health economist with an honorary appointment at the University of Sydney

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey