GP ACCESS After Hours will close its Calvary Mater Hospital clinic and reduce its operating hours at the end of the year following a reduction in funding for the popular service.
Hunter Primary Care, which has provided the Lower Hunter with access to the after-hours medical service for 20 years, has confirmed the GP Access clinic at the Calvary Mater will "cease operations" from December 24.
From January, the clinics at Belmont Hospital and Westlakes Community Health Centre at Toronto will have their weekend services halved, while the Maitland and John Hunter Hospital clinics will close an hour earlier at 10pm each night.
It is expected the closure and reduction in hours will put a "significant" amount of pressure on the remaining clinics.
Hunter Primary Care chief executive Brenda Ryan said these decisions were "not made lightly".
Fixed Commonwealth funding via the Primary Health Network's After Hours program, the freeze in Medicare Benefits Scheme revenue, and demand slowing during COVID lockdowns had all played a role.
"Our operational costs have gone up, but our funding has remained fairly static," she said.
"There is going to be a reduction of hours, which will result in a reduction of people that can be seen.
"In that reduction of hours, people will have to access the emergency department or other after hours services."
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GP Access receives about 70,000 calls a year through its patient screening service, and has about 50,000 clinic presentations each year.
The service also receives between 10,000 and 12,000 referrals from Hunter emergency departments a year.
"Hunter Primary Care has spoken to various parties, including MPs," Mrs Ryan said. "There is a lot going on in the health industry with COVID, and other changes, and I don't think there is anything more we can do."
The changes would be "kept under review" should funding support an increased level of service.
State member for Newcastle, Tim Crakanthorp, said it was disappointing to see a reduction in the hours of such a sought-after service.
Mr Crakanthorp said the Primary Health Network had provided the service with static funding of about $8 million in the past two years, despite operational and employment costs increasing.
He said Hunter New England Health's financial support for the service had dropped from $559,000 in the 2020 financial year to $105,000 in 2021, to what would be "zero" in 2022.
But Melissa Ward, the operations manager at GP Access, said Hunter New England Health had, and were continuing to provide, their service with "a lot of in-kind support" to use their facilities and services - a valued contribution.
"We have a good working relationship with them," she said.
Mrs Ward said they were looking to redeploy staff to other areas within the service, but it was the community that would be the most affected by the changes.
"There is nothing like GP Access," she said. "There is nothing even remotely close to the service we provide."
Its triage service diverted patients to the right place at the right time with the right service.
"We've always unfortunately had issues with funding each year that we're up for renewal, but because we haven't had any indexation in funding for some years, it has come to the time now where we are unfortunately having to make significant changes to the service," Mrs Ward said.
On weekdays, the remaining GP Access clinics would open as usual until 10pm.
On weekends, the Belmont clinic will open from 5pm to 10pm Saturdays, and 3pm to 10pm on Sundays.
At Toronto, the clinic will open from 2pm to 7pm on Saturdays, and 9am to 4pm on Sundays.
"We have made sure those hours have been retained in those areas to make sure we're still providing a service there for the community," Mrs Ward said. "Its an unfortunate situation we find our service in. It is a very much loved service - we provide good quality care to our community. But the main point is that we are not closing, we are reducing services."
Federal Labor MP Sharon Claydon said it was a fight she would be taking up with the Health Minister - again.
"We know the work of GP Access is to take the pressure off the EDs, stop the unnecessary admissions going into the ED, and deal with people in a far more appropriate setting," she said.
"It deserves the support of this government."
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