The past two years have revealed both the importance and fragility of Australia's healthcare system and the candidates for Wannon all agreed that system remains under terrible strain, but they diverged on how it should be solved in the south-west.
Liberal incumbent Dan Tehan focused on training local doctors and nurses to ensure they stayed in the region after graduating. Labor hopeful Gilbert Wilson assailed the Coalition for "eroding" Medicare, saying funding cuts had forced medical staff out of the country and into the cities and that Labor would restore the missing funds.
Independent candidate Alex Dyson agreed that more doctors and nurses needed to be trained locally, but said a greater focus on mental health and National Disability Insurance Scheme funding would alleviate stress on the hospital system.
Greens nominee Hilary McAllister spruiked her party's policy of adding dental and mental health care to the Medicare system, arguing these services should be free and could be paid for by taxing billionaires.
United Australia Party's Craige Kensen said it was time for the federal government to take greater responsibility for the healthcare system, claiming the state government had dropped the ball and Wannon residents were paying the price.
Amanda Mead of the Liberal Democrats pitched an even more radical proposal, saying a "whole new system" was needed because south-west residents were being left behind by the current arrangement.
Independent Graham Garner said regional areas needed more funding because sick people were missing out on crucial services.
While Australia has attempted to move to COVID-normal in 2022, new forms of the sars-cov-2 virus have continued to circulate, bringing record case numbers and deaths and putting the healthcare system under the kind of pressure it faced during the height of the 2020 and 2021 outbreaks.
In the south-west the strain has pushed South West Healthcare to the brink, calling internal emergencies several times a week, while many services at Portland Hospital have collapsed entirely.
An under-resourced primary health network has added to the strain, with GP wait times in Warrnambool regularly blowing out well beyond a month.
Many are also finding it harder and harder to find a GP who offers bulk-billing, increasing the likelihood people will put off necessary healthcare and end up in hospital, putting further pressure on the system.
Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid blamed the federal government for the GP crisis in March and again in April, accusing it of abandoning a 10-year reform plan for the primary health sector.
"What we've been told by Government is: there is no more money. Even the money they've already promised and that they already put in their budgets for this exact reform, we are told, is no longer available," Dr Khorshid said on ABC RN breakfast.
The Coalition government has also come under fire for its NDIS funding, with the average person's plan down by four per cent earlier this year.
The Labor Party has made the most of the AMA criticism, proposing a $970 million investment in the primary healthcare system.
The funding includes a $750 million Strengthening Medicare program that will be chaired by a special "taskforce", but details on how it would improve the system are notably lacking. The remainder is a $220 million grants program for local GPs to upgrade their IT, equipment, telehealth and staff training.
The Coalition, meanwhile, recently released a 10-year primary healthcare plan, which lists a huge range of aims for the coming decade, but has not had any funding allocated to it.
Mr Tehan said one area that had received funding was rural and regional health, which the Coalition gave a $146 million boost, $87 million of which will go towards incentives to keep GPs and allied health workers in country areas.
He also mentioned Hamilton receiving funds for a new Headspace youth mental health centre.
Mr Wilson said nine years of Coalition government had created the difficulties the health system was facing.
"In the middle of the worst COVID-19 outbreak, Scott Morrison and LNP snuck through cuts and changes to Medicare funding for over 900 vital surgeries including hip, knee and heart surgery," he said.
He said Labor was committed to restoring those cuts.
Five experts on the healthcare system weighed in on the major parties' plans on the non-profit news analysis site The Conversation, saying neither came up to scratch but the Coalition's was far worse than Labor's.
Graded A to F, the Coalition didn't receive anything higher than a C, and was given two Fs and an E for their efforts. The University of Sydney's associate professor Jim Gillespie said the government had "a problem with Medicare" and had created a primary health system that "wasn't fit for purpose".
Labor fared slightly better, getting two B grades, two Cs and an F, although that was before their $970 million funding announcement, which may have improved their grades.
Mr Dyson said there was merit in expanding regional university places to train country doctors locally, but he said that effort needed to be bolstered by firmer rules to keep GPs evenly spread across the country.
"Living in the regions does not mean that we should have worse health outcomes than living in the city and currently there's no legislation that shows that GPs need to be in a certain area, so they do gravitate towards the city to try and get a little bit more money," Mr Dyson said.
Ms McAllister said apart from making mental health and dentistry free through Medicare, the Greens would make Telehealth permanent.
"(We will also be) reinvesting money from the private health system into public health so that way we can better fund our hospitals and make sure that those services are on offer for the people where they need it when they need it," she said.
Mr Kensen called for health funding to bypass the state government - which manages the hospital system, among other things - entirely.
"We need to get adequate funding federally because we can see the state government cannot look after our hospitals. We were promised 4000 beds in the state. We never got one. All we're having now is hospitals that are closing wards and closing beds," he said.
Ms Mead said while healthcare funding appeared to be rising, Wannon residents weren't seeing the benefits.
"So I actually think that we need to look at the whole system and find where things are going wrong, and in a way almost create a new system. If we could," she said.
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