Wagga cancer patients have been thrown a lifeline after the NSW government announced treatments will be bulk-billed from next year.
The commitment would see radiotherapy, medical oncology and medical oncology outreach services for Wagga and surrounds bulk-billed.
This would eliminate the potentially high out-of-pocket expenses cancer patients may incur during treatment.
Minister for Health and Regional Health Ryan Park made the announcement during question time in the NSW Parliament on Tuesday, responding to a question from Wagga MP Joe McGirr.
"This is an issue of equity - not being able to provide cancer treatments with a bulk billing option," Mr Park said.
"I engaged with NSW Health on the issue. I was not happy with the initial response, and I thought we as a government and a society this was a basic tenant of healthcare that if someone needed access to cancer treatment, that should be done in a way that is affordable and manageable for them.
"I didn't want a cancer diagnosis to become a financial crisis as well as a health crisis."
Mr Park said the change would be made "as quickly as possible". The plan is to call for tenders in December and select providers in January.
The long standing issue came to a boil in 2022 when the former NSW government committed to bulk billing cancer services in Griffith, but not Wagga.
Patients at the time were reporting thousands in out of pocket expenses, and thousands of kilometres in travel, to receive live saving treatments.
Six months ago, Dr McGirr tabled a petition in the Parliament with 12,000 signatures calling for bulk billing of radiotherapy and oncology in Wagga.
He said government policy had effectively punished the community for fundraising for their own cancer treatment centre 20 years ago.
"People were, I remember, concerned about the out-of-pocket costs back then. It was a privately-run facility at the time - they said they needed to do that to be viable," Dr McGirr said.
"In the last 5-10 years, the state government have put these cancer centres in different regional centres. When they put them in, there are no out-of-pocket costs.
"The minister spoke very strongly about it ... he wants to see it happen as soon as possible. He's documented action that's taken place, and he's confident it'll happen. It was very encouraging, frankly."
Mr Park applauded Dr McGirr's advocacy for regional patients.
"I think this entire house would agree this chamber [in the NSW Parliament] is better because of your input. We are better as a health system because of your efforts, particularly in relation to regional, rural and remote health," he said.
"I want to thank you for leading that, and to all those committee members who are making sure we deliver improvements to health services right across NSW.
"Particularly in rural, regional and remote areas, where I don't think for such a long time they have had the focus on healthcare they need and deserve."
Dr McGirr said that while he'd still prefer to see separate people performing the roles of Health Minister and Regional Health Minister, Mr Park was "making a very good fist of things".
"He's put significant effort into regional health. He's visited numerous regions, he got us to set up the select committee," he said.
"His commitment to that role has been significant. If he didn't have that separate title, would he have had the same focus? I suspect not, without the pressure.
"Having a regional health minister remains important ... I would still prefer for it to be someone separate, but I don't want to take away from the fact the minister has put an enormous amount of effort into the issue."