Health authorities say they are preparing a business case to support a MRI machine for the upgraded Goulburn Base Hospital.
The $150 million redevelopment, due to be handed over to the Southern NSW Local Health District (SNSWLHD) later this year, has a room for the equipment. This space will also include a new CT scanner.
Medical Resonance Imaging (MRI) allows specialists to have a detailed look at the body's tissues and organs. It is commonly used to diagnose cancer.
However a federal government licence for the service has eluded the SNSWLHD for several years. The licence can give patients access to a full or partial Medicare rebate.
A spokeswoman said the District was working on a business case for MRI services at Goulburn Base Hospital in partnership with NSW Health's Better Value Care team.
"This will examine demand across the District as well as the cost of establishing the services and exploration of funding models," she said.
The District advised that the federal government had informed it in October, 2020 that there was "currently no open application process for MRI Medicare eligible licences."
A 2018 senate inquiry into the Availability and Accessibility of Diagnostic Imaging Machines around Australia heard from some submitters that the licensing system "only existed to ration services, rather than on the basis of clinical need or evidenced-based care."
"The committee notes that there is no formal process available to apply for an MRI licence and that consequently, the distribution of licensed MRI machines does not account for recent population growth," the report stated.
The Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine submitted that country people were travelling long distances and footing higher out-of-pocket expenses for diagnostic images.
This not only delayed diagnosis and treatment but could have "deleterious effects on health outcomes compared to patients in metropolitan areas," the report stated.
Goulburn man, Richard Cudaj, who in May was diagnosed with a brain tumour, told The Post he'd had to travel to Nowra, Bowral and twice to Canberra because Goulburn didn't have a publicly available MRI machine.
"...Having the trauma of the tumour and then not having an MRI machine here has made my life miserable," he said this week.
The senate committee also recommended that the federal government implement an application process "with clear, objective and transparent assessment criteria to permit hospitals and radiology practices to apply for licences for MRI machines."
It further recommended that the time between applications and granting of licences be reduced.
The issue came to the fore in 2019 when Canberra Imaging Group (CIG) and Goulburn X-ray missed out on securing a MRI licence for Goulburn. The bid was supported by the SNSWLHD and included statistics on cancer rates, which at the time were four per cent higher than the national average, infant mortality, and socio-economic data.
At the time, the authors said it was a mystery" as to why Goulburn failed to secure one of 53 licences granted.
"We felt Goulburn stacked up well against the criteria and that it had a good chance based on the demographics and the socio-economic factors. We were very hopeful," CIG general manager Anthony Pilloni said in 2019.
While hopeful of securing one of 20 further licences announced that year, Goulburn was again overlooked. This was also despite the application including letters of support from local GPs and specialists arguing a "desperate need" for the service.
A condition of securing a licence is that the machine already be in place or pending within 12 months. It must also be located in a "comprehensive radiology" facility.
Hume MP Angus Taylor said he'd made the case to Health Minister Greg Hunt that Goulburn people needed access to Medicare subsidised scans.
"When the service is up and running, we will then be able to make application for the Medicare licence," he said.
The recent federal budget allocated $31 million over five years "to improve the quality and accessibility of diagnostic imaging services."
Given the licence roadblock, The Post understands the SNSWLHD is also exploring State funding models for an MRI service at the hospital that will offset costs for patients.
While Goulburn has struggled, other centres have been more successful. Albury, Dubbo, Orange, Wagga Wagga and Lithgow Hospitals have licences and the equipment.
In 2020, the State announced funding for two state-of-the-art MRI machines at Nepean Hospital and $4m for another at Bathurst Hospital.
The 2021/22 budget will be handed down on June 22. Goulburn MP Wendy Tuckerman said she'd had recent discussions with the Health Minister Brad Hazard and treasurer, Dominic Perrottet and had been fighting for several years to secure a machine for the new hospital.
Meantime, others are loaning their voice to the push.
In a letter to the editor, Goulburn resident Jenny Pearce wrote that many people had difficulty finding transport to Canberra or Bowral to undergo an MRI.
"Goulburn is an inland city, not a country town as some would have you believe," she stated.
Mr Cudaj agrees.
"We are big enough and the population is growing, so why don't we have one?" he asked.
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