A Broken System: Limited Access to Affordable Health Care for Students

This article attempts to broadly evaluate healthcare providers across the ACT, but does not claim to include all possible options. 

Navigating health care systems as a young person can be difficult, especially for those who have moved to Canberra from inter-state. Recently, the fate of ANU’s health clinic has sparked concerns on the accessibility of affordable healthcare for students.

University students, both domestic and international face issues when navigating an unapproachable health system. Financial stress, a lack of public transport and accessibility lead to a lack of student willingness to seek professional help. Furthermore, universities bring a vast number of first-year students whom have never accessed healthcare in the ACT and struggle to establish a rapport with a new doctor. The implications of this can be seen when students attempt to access a mental healthcare plan, or seek assistance through Government funded programs. 

In June, the University sent an email to students informing them that the National Health Co-Op (NHC), who ran the ANU’s health clinic, has gone into administration, but will continue to run ‘business as usual.’ On October 5, the ANU announced that it will take over operations of the health clinic from the 23rd of October, and is “working towards a smooth transition for clinic staff and patients, and the uninterrupted provision of health care”. A University representative has clarified that ANU’s “counselling services have not been affected by NHC’s circumstances; students can still access these services.” Students have welcomed the news, expressing their concerns that were the NHC to close, they would lose one of their most accessible clinics to seek healthcare. 

Nevertheless, the question of affordable healthcare in Canberra more broadly remains an issue. Off-campus, free health care options are limited, particularly in the inner-north of Canberra. Additionally, access to bulk-billing varies at some clinics depending on whether a patient has a Centrelink health care card or not. Without bulk billing, standard consultations generally cost $90, with a Medicare rebate of close to $40. Longer appointments (over 20 minutes) will generally cost around $150-$160, with a Medicare rebate of around $80.

Across Canberra, the ACT Government Walk-In Centres offer free healthcare to all patients, no booking necessary, from 7:30am to 10pm, seven days a week. These centres, located in Dickson, Belconnen, Gungahlin, Weston Creek, and Tuggeranong are staffed with nurses and nurse-practitioners and should not be accessed for life-threatening injuries or illnesses. 

Within central Canberra, a handful of general practitioners offer bulk billing. In the inner north, this includes the entire National Health Co-op at the ANU and four doctors at Hobart Place GP, though not the entire practice. The Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services in Narrabundah provides free healthcare across physical (including dental), social and emotional health for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander patients. The Narrabundah Family Medical Practice mostly charges private fees for patients, with some exceptions for longer-term patients with a concession card. 

Meanwhile, in the Belconnen region, bulk-billing doctors are more common. The Belconnen Mall Medical Centre and Scullin General Practice offer bulk-billing for all medicare card holders, while some doctors at My Medical Centre Charnwood offer bulk billing. The National Health Co-op clinics at Evatt, Kippax, Higgins, and Macquarie, currently offer bulk billing. Each of these clinics run independently from early October, presumably with bulk-billed services.

Further north, in Gungahlin, there are a few bulk-billing doctors available. Some doctors at Gungahlin Family Practice bulk-bill patients. Alternatively, My GP Gungahlin offers bulk-billing for existing patients; first time patients must pay $85. The Franklin General Practice does not provide bulk billing, but a standard consult costs only $20 with a medicare rebate. 

In southern Canberra, some GPs offer bulk-billed services.The Kambah Medical Centre, Greenway Medical Centre, and Hyperdome Medical Centre all bulk-bill medicare card holders. At the Interchange Health Co-op, bulk-billing is offered to members only, who pay a yearly fee of $120, or $60 for health care card holders. At Phillip Medical and Dental, patients with concession cards are bulk-billed for walk-ins, but not pre-booked appointments. The NHC at Coombs currently bulk-bills patients, but like the previously mentioned NHC clinics is moving to independent management in October. Conder Surgery bulk-bills patients with a health care card. 

Many of these clinics are located in areas that would require transportation, and are not easily accessible for students. The lack of affordable healthcare in the ACT is an issue that remains at the forefront of student concerns. 

This article forms part of a Woroni series focusing on the quality of wellbeing and pastoral care services available to ANU students living on and off campus.