Thursday, April 27, 2023


Mackay and Whitsunday Life

“There Are People In Our Town Dying Who Can’t Afford To Get To Medical Appointments”

A group of cancer patients living in Bowen vented their frustrations last week, saying they felt sidelined by the recent announcement to provide free medical transport to people living in Proserpine and Airlie Beach, but not Bowen or Collinsville.

The Mackay Hospital Foundation community medical bus, which was partly funded by a $50,000 donation from Whitsunday Regional Council, is a service that only caters for patients living in the southern half of the region.

“It was a kick in the guts because there are a lot of people in Bowen struggling,” said a member of the Bowen Cancer and Ostomy Group.

“We all live in the same Shire – it just doesn’t seem fair.”

The group shared stories of missed appointments, stressful experiences when driving to appointments and strangers charging exorbitant amounts to vulnerable cancer patients.

One single mum in her forties who is living with a stoma had missed three medical appointments this year because she could not access transport.

As a result, her stoma, which requires specialist treatment when changing, is now five months old and if it breaks, could result in an emergency situation.  

Another lady travelled to Townsville when she was recalled for a breast screen.

Her elderly husband drove her to the appointment which lasted longer than expected and when they drove home, they both fell asleep while driving.

“It was only the sound of the rumble strips on the side of the road which woke us!” she said.

The couple then parked up and slept before continuing their journey home.

It was a stressful end to an already stressful day.

One elderly lady, whose husband had passed away the year before, was forced to rely on a stranger for transport.

She was charged $250 for a round trip to Mackay Base Hospital and on one occasion she was abandoned by her driver with no way to get home.

The situation became too stressful for this lady, and she moved down to Brisbane to be closer to her daughter.

Another couple in their 80s were attending regular medical appointments, but the trips became too tiring, and they didn’t want to rely on others, so they decided to stop treatment.

These stories are all from one small pocket within the Bowen community and there are undoubtedly countless others with similar experiences.

“There are people in town dying who can’t afford to get to medical appointments,” said Natasha Leaver from the Bowen Cancer and Ostomy Group.

“Some people don’t have the means; others can’t afford it, and some don’t have carers that can take them.”

Natasha said that anyone living in a regional area is entitled to a Patient Travel Subsidy when attending medical appointments.

It can, however, often take months for the rebates to come through and patients who do not have cashflow are unable to afford the upfront cost of transport and are therefore unable to attend appointments.

A free community medical transport bus would provide a welcome solution, but so far the only free bus is not able to service Bowen.

Whitsunday Regional Council released a statement last week saying they would “explore options and advocate for ongoing funding” but there would be “no quick fix” due to multiple funding, legal and operational logistics.

Fortunately, one local business has put their hand up to help.

Mackay Whitsunday Buses is local company has been operating for six months and its owner says they have opened a special service to transport hospital patients from Bowen to Mackay three times a day.

This means that Bowen residents can now arrive in Mackay before 10am and depart at 4pm, allowing plenty of time for lengthy hospital treatments and scans.

The government rebate for this travel expense is usually $57 each way and the bus service are charging exactly that so there are limited additional costs.

“We’ve made our price to match so that anyone travelling down will not be out of pocket,” said Martin Martin from Mackay and Whitsunday Buses.

“We are very community focused, that’s why we jumped on board – we heard people are missing appointments and it just broke our hearts.”

In order to make the service viable for the company, the bus will also be open to the public.

Meanwhile, the Mackay Hospital Foundation medical transport bus, that will transport patients from Proserpine and Airlie Beach to Mackay is due to begin its service within the next two weeks.

There had been significant delays on the launch of this service due to legalities and logistics, but Leonie Hansen from the Mackay Hospital Foundation said that it should be up and running by mid-May.

Get It Done Training have donated free first aid training to drivers and patients will be required to organise their appointment times around the bus’s schedule.

The costs to run the service are huge and it is hoped that patients will offer their Patient Travel Subsidy where possible to help ensure its continuity.

When asked whether there are plans to extend the run up to Bowen, Ms Hansen said that they will likely focus on the pre-approved run first to ensure it is working correctly before increasing their commitment.

The group of concerned residents from the Bowen Cancer and Ostomy Group are now meeting with Whitsunday Regional Council Mayor Julie Hall on May 4 to discuss other options on how the Mackay Hospital Foundation Bus can be extended to include the whole of the Whitsundays.

The Mackay Hospital Foundation community medical bus will not extend services to Bowen at this stage. Photo supplied

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