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Limited access to primary health care puts refugees at risk

A new report has urged the Federal Government to extend Medicare to asylum seekers.

The Federal Government is facing calls to extend Medicare benefits to thousands of community-based asylum seekers following the release of a report which scrutinised their access to basic health services.

Researchers from the University of NSW said that many asylum seekers struggled to access health care services because they were not eligible for subsidised treatment under Medicare.
The surveyed group of community-based asylum seekers reported problems paying for private doctors and medication. Some had to wait weeks to see a GP and as a result suffered stress, anxiety and a deterioration in their health.

One asylum seeker who had a history of heart disease stopped taking his blood pressure medication because he could no longer afford to pay for it.

The researchers said while state government policies on providing hospital care to community-based asylum seekers had improved, the federal government should extend Medicare eligibility to widen the availability of health services.

"Access to primary care would be improved by extending Medicare eligibility to all asylum seekers," the research team from the university's Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity wrote in a study published by the Medical Journal of Australia.

"This is unlikely to add significantly to the cost of the health care system, and would bring Australia's policy into line with that of similar countries."

More than 8000 asylum seekers lodged protection visas in 2009-10. Most arrived in Australia on valid visas and lived in the community while their applications were processed.

However, while many had a range of health problems, including chronic and infectious diseases as well as psychological problems, they were not eligible for Medicare services.

“Principles of disease prevention and the right of every person to health care should drive measures to improve the availability and affordability of general practice care and health support services for these asylum seekers,” the study said.

The Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme administered by the Australian Red Cross provides some help to community-based asylum seekers needing to access health services. But the researchers said not all asylum seekers were eligible to receive help under the program.

When they interviewed the group of 12 asylum seekers from South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia, the Middle East and East Asia, who were now based in NSW, only four were eligible for Medicare.

Those who were ineligible were reluctant to see a doctor because they could not afford the bill.

Others who accessed a GP through charities often had to wait weeks for an appointment, with one pregnant woman forced to wait six months.

Nurses and doctors interviewed by the researchers also reported that negotiating pro-bono care for asylum seekers was difficult and time consuming.


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