The Observatory

Welcome boost to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People’s Eye Health, but more is needed to Close the Gap

Tuesday night’s federal budget committed $10 billion to closing the gap in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health over the next ten years.

Health focussed initiatives included dedicated funds for preventing illnesses that disproportionately impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including vision loss ($34.3m), hearing loss ($30m), and crusted scabies[1] in remote communities ($4.8m).

Vision 2020 Australia has clarified with the Department of Health that of the $34.3 million for vision loss, $3 million is a new allocation of funds. This includes:

  • $2.5 million for 50 new retinal cameras and training for the detection of diabetic retinopathy. Vision 2020 Australia and our members advocated for this in our pre-budget submission. This welcome initiative will support more eye examinations by GPs and builds on the investment made by the Australian Government in 2015.
  • $0.5 million for Eye and Ear Surgical Support Services (ESSS) to address cataract surgery needs. The current gap in waiting times – 152 days for Indigenous Australians versus 93 days for non-Indigenous Australians – highlights the need for continuous and sustained investment over a number of years to fully close the gap in this area.

Through measures to address diabetic retinopathy and cataract surgery waiting times the Government can start to close the gap and address the major causes of vision loss in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

However, the third main cause of vision loss in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is uncorrected refractive error. While this is easily fixed through access to spectacles, the lack of a consistent national approach hinders efforts to close the gap.

Vision 2020 Australia also believes there is a need for a sustained and targeted approach to eliminate trachoma – beyond current approaches. Recent data indicates progress to eliminate trachoma has plateaued. Trachoma funding flows to States and Territories through a National Partnership Agreement, but funding directed through the agreement in this budget remained unchanged.

Additional measures

The government has committed to continuing and expanding support for the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health sector and to ensuring their expertise contributes to health policy and program design and evaluation.

As part of the Stronger Rural Health Strategy, workforce initiatives include incentives for doctors and nurses to practice in rural and remote areas. Vision 2020 Australia is of the view that achieving a greater distribution of the GP workforce across regional, rural and remote Australia presents an opportunity for training curriculum to focus on closing the gap in eye health and vision care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Recognising that simply making services available isn’t enough, the government has also dedicated funding for training mainstream health workers to adopt cultural sensitive practice.

Additionally, as part of the large aged care package announced in the budget, funds have been allocated to ensure aged care packages are delivered by culturally aware service providers.

This is associated with rheumatic fever, rheumatic heart disease and renal disease.