Inadequate health services in NSW are forcing patients into Victoria, says an Albury general practitioner, who has called on the state government to "catch up" to conditions across the river.
Former councillor and Albury GP Dr Amanda Cohn said NSW was behind in addressing barriers to abortion in the wake of its removal from the state's criminal code.
"We are absolutely worse than other regional areas, and that is partly to do with cross-Border issues," Dr Cohn said.
"The biggest issue we saw was the lack of services on the NSW side and people trying to access a Victorian service from rural NSW. That is because the NSW government has failed to take sufficient action to improve access since the 2019 decriminalisation.
"There are lots of patients - particularly Wagga, Leeton, Narrandera - who are still coming to Albury Wodonga for abortion services," she said.
Dr Cohn's comments follow a submission by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners [RACGP] to a senate inquiry into access to reproductive healthcare, which called out significant barriers to reproductive services for communities outside of major cities.
Safe access to services and the decriminalisation of abortion were legislated in NSW in 2018 and 2019 respectively. An earlier reform bill was voted down in the NSW Legislative Council five years ago, meaning abortion remained in the Crimes Act until the next parliament.
Dr Cohn said services shared and split across state lines could often complicate health advice for Border residents, and recommended the establishment of a hotline to ensure timely and accurate information regardless of a caller's location.
"That complexity is a really good argument for the directory service, so at least can have a conversation with someone who understands the sector really well," Dr Cohn said.
"It's time sensitive, it might be confidential. People might not feel comfortable making phone calls at work or even in front of their families and they have to ring around to find services. It is a huge barrier," Dr Cohn said.
"One of the things NSW could do that would be very simple to improve access would be to set up a directory service,"
In Victoria the 1800 My Options hotline was launched in March 2018, a decade after abortion was decriminalised in the state, as part of the government's Women's Sexual and Reproductive Health Strategy.
Operator Women's Health Victoria say over 600 calls are made each month to the sexual and reproductive health phoneline, with the majority from abortion seekers in need of reliable and up-to-date information.
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"A person at the other end helps to navigate the system, so that you can make sure that the first appointment that you book and travel all the way to attend is actually the right one," Dr Cohn said.
"It particularly affects people coming into the town from smaller towns in the catchment. By the time they get an appointment in town and come to that appointment, they have lost more time.
"It wouldn't need legislative change, [the hotline] would just need to be budgeted for by the state government," she said.
In its inquiry submission RACGP president Dr Nicole Higgins noted privacy concerns with creating specific records for abortion services following the breach of Medibank customers' private data.
"Privacy is a key concern for people accessing these services. And we want to improve access, not unintentionally make matters worse," Dr Higgins said.
"There is a real risk of privacy issues with specific items for medical termination of pregnancy services because it would appear on a patient's Medicare record.
"As a regional GP, I know all too well that there are significant barriers to reproductive care for people in rural and remote communities," she said.
As the federal inquiry into universal access to reproductive healthcare continues into next year, Dr Cohn anticipates the situation in NSW will be raised and critiqued.
"When you are behind other states it is very easy to point to the experience of other states, so Victoria is the obvious example," Dr Cohn said.
"I strongly suspect that access in NSW is going to be raised as an issue in the federal inquiry, so it would really behoove the NSW Government to have a look at that."
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