By Mark Metherell of Sydney Morning Herald
April 23, 2011
April 23, 2011
SERIOUSLY ill patients from Papua New Guinea, often with family links to Australians, have become the latest category of boat people facing official rejection from Australia.
The rising number of PNG nationals sailing to nearby Australian islands in the Torres Strait to receive medical treatment has generated a dispute between the federal and Queensland governments over who is ultimately responsible for the cost of their care.
Medical experts have warned that a failure to ensure proper treatment for the PNG patients risks leading to the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis to Australia.
The number of medical evacuations of PNG nationals from Australian islands in the Torres Strait to Queensland hospitals more than doubled to 172 last financial year compared with the previous year, and the pressure on services has spurred a backlash from Australian citizens in the Torres Strait.
Following an ABC report about the planned shutdown of TB clinics in the islands, the federal and Queensland governments are denying responsibility for services. Each side has said in statements to the Herald that the other administration is responsible.
A spokeswoman for the federal Health Department said the Commonwealth ''does not direct Queensland in providing these services''. The extent of services ''has been a decision by Queensland Health''.
But Queensland Health says the federal Department of Health and Ageing had advised it ''to reduce services because it [the federal department] is unlikely to provide additional funds to cover the cost of full services''.
In a statement, Queensland Health said ''the provision and scope of health services for PNG nationals are Commonwealth government responsibilities''.
It provided the services to PNG nationals ''under the direction of the Commonwealth'', which contributed $4 million a year of the total $18 million cost of the services. These include a clinic on nearby islands such as Saibai, about 20 minutes' ride in a boat from the impoverished Western Province of PNG.
Dr Justin Waring, of the national tuberculosis advisory committee, has warned: ''In the short term, not treating these people who come across the water to Australia runs the risk of transition and escalation of the drug resistance and ultimately potentially putting Australian residents at risk.''
A Queensland Liberal senator, Russell Trood, who chaired an extensive inquiry into the Torres Strait Islands, said Australia faced a challenging dilemma in humanely treating the large numbers of sick PNG citizens who had few or no health services in their own country but were so near the medical services of Australia. Often these people have customary right-of-entry because of family links.
Senator Trood's committee was told that none of PNG's health sector indicators had improved since 2002.
The federal government had failed to take up the committee's recommendation that it ensure its funding to meet the costs incurred by Queensland Health.
''The Commonwealth seems to be turning its face away from a clear responsibility,'' Senator Trood said. ''We are talking about a relatively small amount of money to deal with a potential threat to Torres Strait Islanders.''
A federal Health Department spokeswoman said Australian state and federal governments, in consultation with PNG, were considering services being provided to PNG nationals ''due to mounting costs and concerns about the increasing impact on access to health services being voiced by Torres Strait communities''.