Inquiry recommends Latrobe Valley be designated a special health improvement zone

The Latrobe Valley will be designated a special health improvement zone if the State Government adopts the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry’s latest round of recommendations.

The third report of the re-opened inquiry was tabled in State Parliament yesterday and focuses on health improvement in the Valley.

It recommends the establishment of the Latrobe Valley as a ‘Health Innovation Zone’ for at least eight years, with this process overseen by a local Health Assembly and executive board.

A Health Advocate would also be appointed, with the support of an office.

It’s not yet known whether these initiatives will be implemented, with the State Government indicating yesterday a response would be provided once the re-opened inquiry delivered its final round of recommendations in March.

The Board of Inquiry has recommended:

Latrobe City Council chief executive Gary Van Driel highlighted that council made a suite of its own recommendations to the Board of Inquiry – some of which focused on the region’s economic development and resilience.

However, not all were taken on.

“Our greatest aspiration would have been for a recommendation which supported stronger employment in the region, but acknowledge that this may have been beyond the terms of this report,” Mr Van Driel said.

“Council’s initial view of the report suggests that some of its recommendations have been included while others have been either partially included or included in the intent of other recommendations.”

Mr Van Driel said he believed council’s full suite of recommendations would have merit for the long-term health of the community, however council acknowledged the difficult task the Inquiry faced in balancing the recommendations of all parties.

“As is to be expected, the full impact of the recommendations will not be known until the detail has been developed. An important factor in this matter will be the response of the State (Government),” Mr Van Driel said.

Latrobe Regional Hospital chair Kellie O’Callaghan said the government’s response would frame the capacity for service agencies to be able to respond to the Inquiry’s recommendations.

“I feel fairly confident the government will be supportive of the recommendations… I don’t think there’s anything in the recommendations that’s unreasonable,” Ms O’Callaghan said.

The Inquiry recommends the Latrobe Valley Health Innovation Zone be supported with at least $8.1 million per year in state funding for an initial period of eight years.

It also recommends the state engage with the Federal Government so that the Commonwealth Department of Health formally recognises the Latrobe Valley as a health innovation zone and pools funding with the state for certain services.

The State Government said yesterday it had written to the Commonwealth to request its support for future health funding in line with the findings.

In the view of the Board of Inquiry, initial health improvement programs should focus on building pride of place; integrated care for people with chronic diseases; tele-medicine services to reduce barriers of access to specialists; promotion of mental wellbeing including prevention of family violence and smoking cessation programs.

The inquiry report recommends ash in Morwell roof cavities be analysed and the results published, together with clear advice of the potential health effects.

“If the analysis of the ash residue in roof cavities reveals any content that is potentially hazardous to health or of unknown impact on health, conduct an audit of the extent of the exposure to ash and develop an action plan to remove the ash from all affected houses,” the recommendation states.

Voices of the Valley president Wendy Farmer said this approach did not go far enough, saying ash should be removed from people’s homes, regardless of what it contains.

“It doesn’t matter what it is analysed to be, if it is ash, it shouldn’t be there, it doesn’t belong in their roof cavity or fallen into their homes,” Ms Farmer said.

She said the report had addressed the existing health issues faced by the Latrobe Valley.

“It was never just about the Hazelwood mine fire, it was about bringing health to the Latrobe Valley,” she said.

Meanwhile, the calls of the Morwell and District Community Recovery Committee appear to have been heard by the Board of Inquiry, with a recommendation to review the scope of the Hazelwood Mine Fire Health Study to consider the inclusion of non-Morwell residents, including emergency responders to the Hazelwood mine fire.

“We are very pleased to see that in there and we look forward to some ongoing discussions about how that can occur,” Community Recovery Committee chair Carolyne Boothman said.

“I think we were well listened to and our concerns were acknowledged.”

The health study is underway and will look at the long-term health impacts of the mine fire.

It’s funded for an initial 10 years, with a government commitment to continue it for at least another decade.

The Board of Inquiry has recommended the state re-affirm this commitment.

Latrobe Community Health Service chief executive Ben Leigh said it would take “some time” to work through the full implications of the Inquiry report, but it brought renewed attention to the health status of the community in the Latrobe Valley.

*Express journalist Stephanie Charalambous participated in the health improvement forums run by the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry which explored the topic of community engagement and communication.