The struggle for the town of Mallacoota to secure adequate health services was highlighted through the disastrous Black Summer bushfire events, though poor access to many health services has been a longstanding problem.
The Community Health Infrastructure and Resilience Fund (CHIRF) was formed in 2016, when the far eastern Victorian coastal town came close to losing its only doctor.
Since then, CHIRF has advocated for the remote community to not only source doctors but also to fundraise and apply for grants to support clinical services at the existing medical practice.
CHIRF president Robin Bryant worked hard with other dedicated medical professionals and collaborated with the Remote Vocational Training Scheme (RVTS) to trial a pilot program, with CHIRF finding the suitable doctor and RVTS providing a scholarship.
CHIRF has gone on to employ psychologists, clinical nurse support, and has established the Teen Clinic, a teen health program designed for small rural communities in partnership with Bega Valley Medical Practice in south-east NSW.
Just three months before the catastrophic New Year's Eve bushfire tore through Mallacoota in 2019, Mallacoota and CHIRF launched a three-year plan, aimed at addressing shortcomings in the town's health infrastructure and services that had prompted the general practice crisis.
Mallacoota is the only Victorian town of more than 800 people that is not within 70 minutes of a public hospital emergency department, with a two-hour drive to Bega or a close to three-hour drive to Bairnsdale facing those in dire need.
The town has no federally funded residential aged care beds, limited palliative care, no 24/7 urgent care centre, nor does the town have a jointly funded multipurpose service (MPS).
"We are very isolated and the bushfires highlighted that. The question still remains - when the road goes out what do you do? Ambulances are not the answer," Mr Bryant said.
Member for Gippsland Darren Chester acknowledged the region experiences poorer access to some forms of health services compared to more highly-populated areas.
"It's just not possible to have specialist services in every small town and we are constantly working to attract more health professionals to regional communities," Mr Chester said.
"The Mallacoota community has worked hard to secure and retain GP services along with a wide range of allied health providers."
Mr Chester said additional services were funded in the aftermath of the 2020 bushfires, and that he met with both private and public health providers this week to discuss future needs.
"The lack of services for older residents has been identified as a community priority for many years and there are two options being pursued by Mallacoota District Health and Support Service through the Community Health Infrastructure and Resilience Fund," he said.
"Both models would make it easier for older residents to remain in Mallacoota as their health needs grow, or return to the town to recuperate from surgery or injuries," he said.
Mr Bryant said the progress made so far in the delivery of the new medical centre, GP recruitment and provision of psychology services was evidence of the success of Mallacoota's own model of self-sustainment, and a model that could be replicated in other remote communities struggling to retain health services.
CHIRF has also developed a proposal for a $5million 24-hour medically-served nursing facility that would support aged care and respite, palliative care, and 'in transit' emergency care or rehabilitation. Although the proposal received support when applying for grants, progress has been slow.
"It does not fit the one-size-fits-all state model, there are some rather sad misunderstandings about the health care situation in Mallacoota," Mr Bryant said.
"Mallacoota's health services are well below par compared with the rest of Victoria and are failing to meet community needs.
"The bushfires highlighted the need for the sort of service we are seeking to provide - not only to cater for normal traffic but able to be ramped up in times of emergency when the community is cut off.
"Not only the bushfire, but COVID border closures have also highlighted our desperate need."
Mr Bryant said the medical services are necessary to give an ageing population the confidence to remain in Mallacoota and give the town the capacity for future growth and the regular tourism influx.
"It is estimated that 168 people have left Mallacoota in the past 10 years because they have been unable to access appropriate aged care," he said.
Mr Chester said he was determined to keep working with the local community to measure Mallacoota's health needs, develop practical solutions, and secure state and federal funding to deliver better outcomes for residents and visitors.
"When it comes to aged care needs, locals should be able to remain in the town they love and receive the appropriate support as they reach the end of their lives," he said.
"There are a lot of enthusiastic volunteers and hard working health professionals who are striving to make this a reality in Mallacoota and I will continue to support their efforts."