Cynical politics over sound health management – September 2007

The federal government takeover of Mersey Hospital is more than just another election stunt. It shows the government can impose its agendas over any state government jurisdiction.

We have recently seen several examples where politicians have used our health system as a political football. There has been the federal takeover of the Mersey Hospital in Tasmania and the ongoing rows over funding between the federal and state governments.

The federal government’s intervention at Mersey Hospital may have some support at a local level but it could have serious consequences for the health system and nurses beyond North West Tasmania.

The takeover has been described as a ‘disaster’ by both the Tasmanian Liberal MP Stephen Parry and the AMA.

Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, in his previous role as AMA President in Tasmania, had said the downgrading of the hospital was in the region’s best interests. Two independent reports commissioned by the State government found the hospital was unviable due to the shortage of medical staff in Tasmania. In fact, keeping open the Mersey threatened the survival of the other local hospital in Burnie.

It is hard to see who benefits out of this cynical political exercise except the local Liberal MP Mark Baker holding on by his fingernails in a marginal seat. It certainly looks like a very amateur way to run a health system.

There is a broader lesson to belearned from this exercise. It does show us how the federal government can impose its agendas over any state government jurisdiction.

In particular, this intervention by the federal government shows the vulnerability of public hospital nurses to the federal IR laws. If the federal government can dictate its will on funding to an individual public hospital in a state system, why couldn’t or wouldn’t it do the same in industrial relations?

In announcing this extraordinary intervention, the Prime Minister said it is the federal government’s role to ‘plug the holes’. Really! Surely it is the federal government’s role to adequately fund the public hospital system.

Yet, if you look at the federal government’s track record on public hospitals it has been steadily reducing its share of spending. In 2000, the Howard government contributed 50% of the cost of maintaining and running public hospitals. By 2005, that share had dropped to 45%. In dollar terms this creates a shortfall of $1.1 billion a year, an amount that would fund an extra 350,000 admissions in our public hospitals.

While Tony Abbott has found plenty of time to organise the saving of a small Tasmanian hospital, it seems he has taken his eye off the much more important task of the funding of our entire public hospital system.

The NSWNA is very concerned that he has so far refused to enter into negotiations with the state governments for the next round of public hospital funding because he says ‘the important task at the present time is to get re-elected and that is where my energies are focused’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 25/7/07).

The real reason for the delay could be that the federal government is waiting for the election to be out of the way before linking health funding with the imposition of AWAs as has occurred in our universities.

In the run-up to this federal election, we must pressure the political parties to face up to the real problems confronting the health system.

In Australia, there are 700 public hospitals. Five hundred and fifty of these are in rural and regional areas with similar problems and issues to Mersey Hospital. We are consistently told we have never had it so good economically. The federal government has been awash with budget surpluses for some years now. There are no excuses for not properly funding our entire health system, especially as health is consistently put forward in polls and surveys as the public’s most important issue.