Remote Northern Territory residents do not currently have consistent access to rapid antigen tests, unlike residents of major centres, prompting concern about inequity between those in the bush and in town.
The Federal Health Department has confirmed they will begin to provide RATs to Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs), which provide health care to the majority of the NT's remote communities.
However, until that happens, ACCHOs have been lumped with sourcing and supplying their own RATs, unlike the major centres of Darwin, Katherine and Alice Springs which have had a consistent supply of RATs from the NT Government.
Katherine West Health Board is the sole provider of health services for eight remote communities in the Top End, and Chief executive Sinon Cooney said this responsibility to source has put an enormous strain on their already limited resources.
"We're covering the cost of testing our staff, but we can't cover the cost of testing our clients," he said.
"And testing our staff is very expensive. It costs $10,000 for 1000 RATs, and because we're a health service, we're high risk. We go through that $10,000 worth of RAT tests in two and a half, three weeks.
"However, we don't think we should be paying for RATS to test clients in community, we think that's a government responsibility. And, we just haven't had access to those."
Mr Cooney said the NT Government provides RATs to remote communities in cases of urgent need, but there was no long-term, consistent supply.
"We're working with them [the NT Government] at the moment. We've been promised some, but a small supply given...the task ahead and it's not a consistent, clear supply of RATS," Mr Cooney said.
"We actually need them regularly supplied to us, because we are doing regular surveillance of people who are high-risk close contacts or who have symptoms.
"We need those RATs provided to us the same as they're provided in Darwin, Katherine, Alice Springs Tennant Creek, because we are the sole providers of healthcare in those environments.
He said the issue created an inequity in access to testing between residents of remote communities and those in the NT's major centres.
"We've raised that there is a real inequity at the moment; If you live in Darwin, Katherine or Alice Springs, you can get your result back that day and then go about your business. If you live in the bush you might have to wait five to seven days to get a result."
When asked about this, Chief Minister Michael Gunner said the long-term responsibility of providing RATs to remote health services was that of the federal government.
"The Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Sector is supplied by the Commonwealth Government. So we're currently essentially providing some of our RATS into the ACCHOs to deal with any emerging situation," he said.
"I'll give you an absolute assurance when there is a need for RATs in a remote community...we will provide those rats to the ACCHO.
"We can't switch and assume Commonwealth responsibility for being the sole provider of rats to ACCHO communities...the more long term sustainable solution has to be the provision of Rapid Antigen Tests through the Commonwealth to the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health sectors."
A Federal Health Department spokesperson confirmed that RATs would be delivered to remote health services for free.
However, the spokesperson did not directly answer a question from the Katherine Times about when ACCHOs could expect to receive their supply of RATs.
"RATs will be made available to ACCHOs for the purposes of screening of their workforce from the Commonwealth at no charge, through the Commonwealth Department of Health RAT program," the spokesperson said.
"The Department is working directly with NACCHO to plan and prioritise efficient delivery of RAT supplies directly to ACCHOs. The current plan does not include cost sharing or delivering to States and Territory governments for distribution to the ACCHOs."
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.