Latrobe Valley to become Australia’s first health zone

Plans are in motion to make the Latrobe Valley Australia’s first ‘health zone’, following a commitment by the State Government to implement recommendations by the reopened Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry.

The government announced on Friday a $51.2 million package to address the recommendations, $27.3 million of which has been earmarked for improving the health of the Latrobe Valley.

According to the government, the upcoming 2016/17 budget will provide the funding over five years.

This funding allocation falls short of the Board of Inquiry’s recommendation that at least $8.1 million per year be spent on health improvement strategies in the Valley for an initial period of eight years.

When asked whether the government would commit to those funding specifications, Health Minister Jill Hennessy said it was making “enormous investments” in the region separate to Friday’s announcement.

“We’re also making significant investments that are not part of this announcement in places like the local hospital as well and we’ll continue to make those announcements and commitments as the budget comes forward,” Ms Hennessy said.

Latrobe City chief executive Gary Van Driel said the success of changing health outcomes was about long-term investment.

“We’d be advocating that those investments are locked into the recurrent budget over the long term,” Mr Van Driel said.

“We welcome the investment, but we just need to understand what the detail is.”

Council and the region’s other principal health agencies – as identified by the inquiry – Latrobe Regional Hospital, Latrobe Community Health Service and the Gippsland Primary Health Network are expected to play a critical role in the new health arrangement for the Valley.

The board recommended they be part of a Latrobe Valley Health Assembly, which would oversee the development of the health zone. Ms Hennessy said there would also be a process to invite interested community members to participate in the Health Assembly.

“We want a genuine, collaborative process. We’ve absolutely learnt through the mine fire process of the issues and insights that not just the experts bring, but certainly the lived experience of members of the community,” Ms Hennessy said.

She said the assembly would then identify somebody they would like to be the ‘Latrobe Valley Health Advocate’.

Latrobe Regional Hospital chair Kellie O’Callaghan said the health zone designation would help the region attract the support and resources it needed.

“It’s not just money, it’s about everything from attracting research, support from peak bodies, expertise into the region, but also a much greater focus on all areas, whether that be employment or education, or just general recreational support for a community,” Ms O’Callaghan said.

“There’s going to be discussions about access and availability and opportunity, not having people having to travel out of the area for health support even now or into the future, looking at how we can be a little more flexible in our approach to help service delivery, but also looking at how do we advocate more proactively as health services and community leaders for those people in our community that may be a little disengaged in their own health and wellbeing more generally.”

The initial mine fire inquiry in 2014 found the Latrobe Valley had a poorer health profile compared with other local government areas in Victoria and the average for the state, meaning more years of life will be lost on average as a result of conditions such as cancer, diabetes, mental disorders, cardiovascular disease, asthma and injuries.

Gippsland Primary Health Network chair Dr Nola Maxfield said she was pleased the government had looked at the “social determinates” of health.

“As was mentioned here today, if you haven’t got a job, if you’re involved with domestic violence, then it’s very difficult to be healthy,” Dr Maxfield said.

“There’s no point going to your doctor who’s going to tell you to eat healthy food, to do exercise, when you actually can’t afford to do that, or the design of the community doesn’t allow you to get out and walk as part of your daily activity.

“Mental health is another issue that is impacted and in particular if people are worried about their jobs or their living conditions.”

Dr Maxfield described the health zone and health advocate as initiatives that “we don’t know exactly what they mean yet”.

“But I think we’d be keen to work with people to make sure that what is designed is actually going to be useful and that it will focus on the local community,” she said.

Latrobe Community Health Service chief executive Ben Leigh said Friday’s announcements had the potential to transform the health of the Latrobe Valley community.

“It’s going to be vital that the whole community has a sense of ownership and stewardship of this initiative,” Mr Leigh said.

“It’s got to be more than just community groups and community leaders, it’s got to be mums and dads, grandparents, uncles and aunties, everybody’s got to be part of this, that’s got to be the level of involvement we’re going to have to have if we’re going to be successful.

“People have got to be part of this at home, at school, at work, within our sporting clubs, as part of our everyday lives.”

As part of its commitment, the government will also test for coal ash contamination in roof cavities in Morwell, as was recommended by the inquiry.

The inquiry stated that if the analysis revealed any potentially hazardous content that an audit be conducted and an action plan be developed to remove the ash from all affected houses.

The money announced on Friday was for testing only, but Ms Hennessy indicated the government would see the ash issue through.

“It’s important that we test it, that we get a sense of scope and have the risk assessed and we’ll be doing that in conjunction with council,” she said.

“Ours is a government that has not once shirked any of its responsibilities to this community and I’ve got every confidence that once we understand some of the issues around ash in roof cavities that we will be stepping up yet again.”

Voices of the Valley president Wendy Farmer said she wanted to see ash from homes removed in any case.

“It needs to be addressed, it needs to be removed, because if it is not a health issue, it is a mental health issue,” Ms Farmer said.