Finding affordable and accessible healthcare in Canberra can be difficult, particularly with the increasing cost of living and low bulk-billing rates across the Capital Territory. This issue has recently been exacerbated by the uncertain fate of ANU Medical Centre and the closure of Hobart Place General Practice.

In 2021 the National Health Co-Op, which administered the ANU Medical Centre, went into administration. The ANU then announced a takeover of operations and commenced a two-stage procurement process for a provider of primary health services at the Kambri GP clinic.

This procurement process was scheduled to be completed in April of 2023. However, an ANU spokesperson recently confirmed that the process is ongoing. It is unknown when the ANU will be able to procure a new provider. Last year, the ANUSA SRC opposed the outsourcing of the ANU Medical Centre, calling on the ANU to continue providing in-house bulk-billing services to students and staff. This meant calling on the ANU to continue subsidising the cost of healthcare on campus and start putting “people over profits.”

The uncertain future of the ANU Medical Centre is just one issue facing students trying to access affordable healthcare. As university students access healthcare in the ACT for the first time they are confronted with a number of barriers including financial stress, the lack of rapport with a new doctor, a lack of public transport, a lack of accessibility, and extremely low rates of bulk billing. Canberra’s bulk billing is the lowest in the country and almost 40% below the national average. Such services are integral to the provision of affordable and accessible healthcare, as they are almost entirely free of cost. Without bulk billing, there is no limit on how much GPs can charge for appointments, but Medicare will provide a rebate of up to $39.75 for a standard consultation.

In good news for ANU students, an ANU spokesperson has claimed,

“The ANU medical centre bulk bills and will continue to do so. A new provider will be required to bulk bill.”

Although bulk-billing services are available to ANU students, the ANU Medical Centre does not bulk-bill staff or general visitors.

Other issues have also been raised by students surrounding the quality of healthcare at the ANU Medical Centre. Some have noted the lack of female doctors at the clinic, others the extended waiting period, including a six-week waiting time for mental health care plans, and more still noted difficulties accessing services including the free flu vaccines last year.

An ANU spokesperson has claimed that,

“We are in the process of recruiting more doctors for the centre; gender representation is a key consideration of this, noting the limitations of the existing medical workforce ANU can recruit from. The University is about to appoint a female doctor to the medical centre who will work two days a week.

In addition, we now have a female nurse practitioner in sexual health working at the medical centre and our female registered nurse has completed her Women’s Wellness training, so both are well placed to support women with specific women’s health needs.

Wait times at ANU are on par with, or better than, other similar services across the ACT.

Free fluvax appointments are now available at the clinic. Students and staff can book these online

Despite the continued bulk-billing of the ANU Medical Centre, the question of affordable and accessible healthcare options in Canberra broadly remains an issue. Access to bulk billing can vary across clinics depending on whether the patient is eligible for a Centrelink healthcare card. Services Australia also offers the Low Income Healthcare Card, which lowers the safety net for individuals, meaning patients receive a greater rebate on healthcare after spending $770 in a year.

Other healthcare resources across Canberra include ACT Government Walk-In Centres which offer free healthcare to all patients, from 7.30am to 10pm, seven days a week, on a walk-in basis. These centres are staffed by Advanced Practice Nurses and Nurse Practitioners and are located in Dickson, Belconnen, Gungahlin, Weston Creek, and Tuggeranong. This service should not be accessed for life-threatening injuries or illness, and if your healthcare needs are outside of the scope of the clinic they can assist in providing direction or support to the right care.

Meridian is also a local community-controlled, peer-led organisation that provides health and social support services to the community. Meridian offers support for people of diverse sexualities and sexual identities, people at risk of HIV, sexually transmitted infections, and other blood-borne viruses, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people who have sought asylum, and people with a disability.

The Canberra Sexual Health Centre also provides confidential healthcare and provides care to LGBTQIA+ populations, people living with HIV, young people, sex workers, people without Medicare, Asylum seekers and refugees, and international students.

Another major healthcare concern in Canberra is access to ACT specialist services. In November 2019, 20.8% of ACT adults felt that it was hard to access specialist services. The ACT Council of Social Services has also noted that the ACT lacks specialist support services for people with a disability.

Gaps in specialist service mean that people need to travel interstate to manage ongoing conditions and/or are simply missing out on diagnostic, preventative, treatment and care services. Some students have described this as an expectation to just “go to Sydney.” This expectation adds another layer of cost to already expensive specialist medical services.

Many across the medical sector are calling out for better indexation of the Medicare rebate and greater investment in health services. If there is to be any movement, it will come in the May Budget, but for now the future of affordable and accessible healthcare in Canberra remains unclear.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.