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National Health Co-op expands from the ACT to other states

A Canberra health start-up is expanding out of the ACT to give people in country towns better access to bulk-billing GPs.

The National Health Co-op, founded six years ago on Canberra's northside, now has seven  medical clinics across the territory, with another about to open in Higgins.

It will also open a clinic in Yass in September and is planning to spread across the nation.

Already it has signed up 33,000 patients – equivalent to about 10 per cent of the ACT population.

The co-op was formed by residents who were frustrated at the lack of bulk-billing GPs.

Adults pay $100 a year plus a $30 joining fee to become members of the co-op, allowing them unlimited access to bulk-billed primary care services, while members' children under 18 are free.

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Services at the clinics include general practice, podiatry, psychology, asthma and diabetes education, mental health, physiotherapy, child, teen and aged health, dietetics, counsellors and social workers.

Adrian Watts, the co-op's CEO, said the business was now the largest provider of bulk-billing services in the ACT.

"We've built ourselves up to a very solid entity that can take this across the country now," he said.

"We realised we couldn't just keep this model here in the ACT, it's too big a prospect – from my side, I couldn't ethically just keep this here and not give this to the rest of Australia."

Even before opening the clinic in Yass, the co-op has 450 members in the NSW town.

"We're certainly going to be moving through south-east NSW as we grow," Mr Watts said.

"Within the next five years, we aim to be every state and territory in Australia.

"I spent last Wednesday down in South Australia in a wine region, speaking with a small town who really needs some more GPs.

"I anticipate we'll be up and running there in the next 12 months.

"I had the same conversation in Cooma and I hope to be there before the end of 2016."

Mr Watts discussed the co-op's plans with mayors from every state and territory, at the recent Local Government Association conference in Canberra.

"There's a lot of interest for this model," he said.

He was asked to join the co-op's board in 2010, to share his financial experience as an accountant.

"We'd proved you could employ a GP, you could actually own a practice as a community – to me, that was a terrific example of how the community can get together," he said.

"I had firsthand experience of waiting in a line for three or four hours trying to see a GP myself."

Mr Watts said for a co-operative, no dividends can be paid back to members. For the health co-op, that means the money earned goes to health services.

"Co-operatives are really going to be the way of the future over the next couple of decades in Australia – it's that gap between what governments can't solve and what business chooses not to," he said.

"There's a big niche market left in a lot of industries where this is value just being taken out of the system.

"We've proved in the healthcare system that you can keep the value back in the healthcare system by keeping it owned by the consumer.

"A private business might have to return 30 per cent to its shareholders every year.

"They would look at this part of the market and say, we're not really interested in that, we're not really interested in operating a four-GP practice because we'd rather run 20 and then we can make a lot of money.

"I understand that and I think that's fair for them to do that but it leaves open a whole lot of the market where the community can take the value."