The Fred Hollows Foundation has welcomed the Government’s six month extension to telehealth services announced in last night’s Federal Budget, but said more must be done to address the backlog of eye health services caused by COVID-19.
The Foundation’s CEO Ian Wishart said urgent action was needed to address the backlog of cataract surgeries and other ophthalmic treatments because of the pandemic.
“Already long waiting lists are getting longer. Without targeted investment to support cataract surgery for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, there is a real concern that gains made over the past decade in closing the eye health gap could be lost,” Mr Wishart said.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are three times more likely to be blind than other Australians and we know that more investment is needed to close the gap in eye health.
“We need commitment from all levels of government towards the implementation of Strong Eyes Strong Communities, a five year plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye health and vision care.
“There is a critical need for increased funding for Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) to support the delivery of eye health care to their communities. COVID-19 has highlighted the dependence of current eye health care on fly-in, fly-out models of service.
“But we also saw that locations with local capacity and resourcing were more easily able to adapt to telehealth to ensure ongoing access to eye care. We need to increase investment in this area.”
Mr Wishart said more funding also was needed for broader Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health priorities.
“It’s disappointing to see limited funding for the new Closing the Gap Agreement. The Agreement consists of four priority reform areas, and 16 new targets.
“But funding has only been committed towards one of the priority reform areas. The Australian Government must do more if it is serious about working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and communities to really close the gap.
“There is also no funding to support a possible referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament or to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart. All governments must do more to implement the Statement’s recommendations, and ensure that the rights, needs and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are respected and upheld.”
Mr Wishart said the absence of funding for social housing, including remote housing, is cause for concern and could have ramifications for health, including eye health.
“It is estimated about 160,000 Australian families are waiting for public housing, many of them Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families,” Mr Wishart said.
“The health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples cannot be properly addressed when housing is inadequate and this is even more of a concern during a pandemic. This Budget misses the opportunity to address this problem.
“So far, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have escaped the worst of COVID-19 thanks to the comprehensive actions taken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health leadership. But if COVID-19 entered a community where housing infrastructure and hardware, including taps and running water, are inadequate, and where up to 17 people can live in one house, the results could be catastrophic.
“This also has ongoing implications for the elimination of trachoma, the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness, in central Australian remote Aboriginal communities.”