Alarm bells ring on Abbott’s plans for public hospitals

May 2013

Editorialmar2012Comments by the federal opposition’s Shadow Minister for Health Peter Dutton on plans to privatise the management of public hospitals have flown under the radar but they should set our alarm bells ringing loud and clear.

On two occasions recently the federal opposition’s Shadow Minister for Health Peter Dutton, has put on the table that a Tony Abbot-led federal government would consider privatising the management of our public hospitals.

The first was in an interview with the Australian Financial Review (AFR), the second was in response to a question I put to him on the ABC’s Q and A.

Dutton, a Queensland MP, told the AFR that the Coalition did not see public hospitals as immune in its drive to find savings in the health budget. He added the Coalition, if elected, would continue to work with state governments that have delivered services through private hospitals and not-for-profits.

In reply to my question he said: “if our debate is about how we’re going to get more money to frontline services, how we’re going to get better patient outcomes, then I just think we shouldn’t be afraid of having a debate about where the best delivery model, the best management practices lie and if it lies within the public sector that’s fine. If that’s the most efficient delivery mechanism but if it’s within private management of those services then we shouldn’t be afraid to have that debate.

We should sit up and take notice of these comments. They are not just theoretical musings. In Queensland and Western Australia the Liberal state governments have already started down the path of privatising the management of public hospitals.

In Queensland, the full privatisation of the planned Sunshine Coast University Hospital is on the table as is the operation of the new Queensland Children’s Hospital. The public day oncology services at the Mater Public Hospital in Brisbane have already been privatised to form a new Mater Cancer Care Service.

The NSWNMA is not afraid of participating in this debate and we’ll be putting it to both the major parties that the management of public hospitals should remain in the public sector. We see that as being the best model.

Public health is funded by the public and we believe the best way to make sure that those funds are used in an accountable way is through a public service management not a private company that would prioritise cost cutting and profit.

The assertion that private companies deliver more efficient outcomes in health is contradicted strongly by overseas experiences.

In Britain the NHS has been under relentless attack by the current Conservative government and the increased involvement of private companies in public hospitals has been an important plank in its health policy.

In this issue of The Lamp we look at how the cost cutting and budget-driven management practices at the Mid Staffordshire Trust which has emerged as a full blown scandal in Britain led to a systemic failure which resulted in a very large loss of life (see page 26).

It is instructive to observe that nurses have been very clearly targeted as scapegoats for this failure even though the roots of the problem lie in the fundamental changes in management structure.

Recent studies have shown an MRI can cost $2871 in the United States compared to $363 in France. In the Netherlands it costs $731 to stay in hospital per day, in the United States $12,537. US health spending swallows up 17.6% of GDP compared to 9.1% in Australia.

Significant numbers of Americans do not have health cover because of its prohibitive cost and the US healthcare system is wasteful and economically exorbitant.

While the Coalition strongly denies it wants to go down the US route, the handing over of public hospital management to private companies will produce similar outcomes in the long term.