More focused funding needed for community health

December 9, 2020

Peter Ruzyla, CEO of EACH, reflects on the investment in community health outlined in this year’s state budget and what he hopes to see in next year’s budget.

From a community health perspective nearly every sector that contributes to the social determinants of health received record funding. While it took a pandemic, we must applaud a budget that invested in major capital infrastructure, industry, education and housing to drive the commercial economy out of recession. Not only that, this budget also targeted the ‘soft areas’ of social policy reform including family violence, early childhood development and family support, alcohol and other drugs, mental health, homelessness, disability and aged care services.

Many initiatives also bring to life the acute and subacute health sectors including more than $2 billion capital infrastructure investment across the state, safeguarding the hospital infrastructure needs for the Victorian community for decades to come.

There are also opportunities for community health through the $200 million Metropolitan Health Infrastructure Fund. This is positive given the sector has bid for infrastructure funding in every Budget I can recall, with very few positive outcomes. This is seen to be sending a positive message to our communities about the regard they and their service needs are held in. The sector is positive about the Fund and keen to see it live up to expectations.

This once-in-a-generation budget created great hope for major investment for the first time since the inception of the Community Health program in the mid-1970s. However, unfortunately it is my belief that the budget still failed to clearly direct community health funding.

Prior to the budget and since the budget was delivered, the Department and Minister have given reassurances that the Victorian community health sector has proven its worth during the pandemic. The lessons learned need to be applied and leveraged in a post-pandemic approach to chronic disease, ambulatory care-sensitive conditions and improved interface between the acute and the primary care, GP sector. In addition, the connection to social factors such as homelessness, family violence, child abuse and neglect, isolation and loneliness, which neither the acute nor GP sectors are set up to address, is the precise place within which the Victorian Community Health sector works.

This critical role has been highlighted by effective responses to COVID 19 outbreak containment in communities where the community health sector rapidly responded to complex, community-level needs. Time and again, community health services were able to respond to these complex needs through established and trusting local relationships and a personalised approach, overcoming resistance to gold-standard, but more clinical approaches offered by other parts of the system.

Government has recognised the need for public health responses to be deeply embedded in local communities, which is where the community health sector is most adept. Equally, we recognise that state-level public health responses need scale, and so collaboration between community health services and the broader health system is essential. The community health sector can address this by thinking globally and acting locally; a path our peak body the Victorian Healthcare Association can help facilitate in 2021 and beyond.

There are reassuring messages and signals for community health coming from government about the 21/22 budget – which is just around the corner. Let’s hope that 2021 will produce a much greater and more focussed investment in the health of communities across Victoria through serious investment in Victorian community health services.