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(L-R) Martha and James, who work at the Horn Island Primary Health Clinic, with optometrist Cameron Graco

Rhiannon Riches

Providers in the Visiting Optometrists Scheme (VOS) have been advised that their contracts have been extended for a further six months.

VOS optometrists were notified by the Department of Health in November that they will continue in their current arrangement until mid next year. Jurisdictional fund holders were expected to take over management of the VOS from 1 January 2015 but this has been delayed.

According to the Department of Health, jurisdictional fund holders will be appointed at the end of the year to then have needs assessments completed in time for new contracts to be established with the VOS providers in mid-2015.

The news is a relief for Cairns-based optometrist and VOS provider, Cameron Graco.

Cameron, a pilot and CASA-accredited credentialed optometrist, returned from a trip to Darnley Island in November. It was one of many trips he has made to the islands located off far north Queensland.

In July, he flew to Horn Island. Before Horn Island, it was Thursday Island and before that, Yorke Island.

‘I’m just at the end of my run through the outer islands,’ he said, back in late May.

‘I’m on Murray Island today and heading off to Darnley Island tomorrow for a couple of days. Then I’m back to Cairns for the weekend and next week off to the absolutely stunning Yorke Island—imagine fine white sand, palm trees and crystal clear turquoise water—then Yam Island for another couple of days,’ he said.

Cameron and his ‘team’ of one assistant work in Queensland Health Clinics that are established on all the islands and set up their equipment in one of the consulting rooms.

‘I travel with an assistant who takes care of the administration for me and helps lug the gear. My territory also includes Bamaga and its communities on Cape York, Weipa and the Western Cape communities, as well as the Torres Strait,’ Cameron said.

‘We supply all patients who have an eligible health care or pensioner card with free spectacles through the spectacle subsidy scheme and bulk-bill all consultations.

‘We visit the outer islands at least twice a year and Thursday Island about a half a dozen times a year in conjunction with the visiting ophthalmologist, Dr Garry Brian. He is able to perform cataract and pterygium surgery, and treat diabetic retinopathy with laser equipment,’ he said.

Cameron describes his role as providing a triage service for all the islanders and referring only the patients who need to be seen by Dr Brian.

‘Because I’m able to visit the communities on a regular basis, I can closely watch those diabetic patients at risk of losing sight, as well as glaucoma patients, and organise urgent referrals for those who need to be seen straight away.

‘This has the added benefit of making sure that Garry is not doing screenings and can spend more time treating and operating on the patients who need medical care.’

Cameron works for a company called Eyedentity, which he says has been delivering eye-care services to remote places since about 1998.

‘I started working for them in 2006 and it just worked out perfectly for me that I already had my pilots licence and I managed to find a job where I could fly to work instead of driving. This opened up the possibility of servicing a much larger area and more frequently. I get to fly into every island that has an airstrip. Our company has another optometrist who also does remote work but she drives,’ he said.

‘The communities we service go as far south as Ingham, west to Karumba and as far north as the Australian territory borders with Papua New Guinea.

‘We are heavily reliant on the Visiting Optometrists Scheme to maintain the service and so we waited with baited breath the outcome of the last Federal Budget and what that would mean to the funding levels for the VOS.

‘We got an email from VOS on 12 November saying that the current contracts will be extended for another six months, but we haven’t received any details of how many dollars are on offer, so some good news at least,’ he said.

‘I’m proud to say that we have built up a great working relationship with Queensland Health staff on the islands, as well as people in the communities that we visit. We are recognised by the local people as being there for them to provide all their primary eye care needs and it is an absolute privilege to visit these wonderful island communities,’ Cameron said.

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