Desperate Howard seizes hospital


Move to grab votes is bad for health care, experts say

If you’re going to get sick, try to do so in a marginal electorate.

That’s the key message from the Howard government’s desperate move to seize control of a small State government-run hospital in Tasmania.

Howard chose the Mersey Hospital in the town of Devonport not for health reasons, but because it sits in the marginal Liberal-held seat of Braddon which, on current polling, is in great danger of falling to Labor.

We don’t know if the federal takeover will ensure Braddon stays Liberal. But, if a wide spectrum of health experts can be believed, the move is bad for health care.

Hours after the Prime Minister announced the takeover, which will cost $45 million a year, his Health Minister Tony Abbott invited communities across the nation to contact him if they wanted similar treatment. Anyone who felt their local public hospital was being mismanaged by the relevant state Labor government should ‘say so loud and clear’, Abbott told The Australian.

Mersey Hospital (96 beds) has battled to find and keep medical specialists. Two years ago a private operator handed it back to the State Labor government, which recently decided to downgrade services to a level providing general practitioner care and a day-surgery unit. Locals needing major procedures would have had to travel to Burnie Hospital (160 beds, and 20 minutes from Mersey) or Launceston Hospital (350 beds and 80 kilometres away).

Burnie Hospital general manager Paul Arnold said Howard’s plan would result in three hospitals in a small geographical area competing for nurses and doctors. ‘You can’t possibly try to fractionate the services in a small region like this, it really will ultimately spell the end of Burnie Hospital and probably the end of Mersey,’ he said.

General Practice Tasmania rejected the federal takeover as ‘misinformed, outrageous and unwelcome’ and at least one medical specialist, Mersey Hospital’s chief obstetrician, has resigned in protest at Howard’s decision.

Tasmanian AMA president Professor Haydn wrote: ‘Because of the realities of local funding and manpower constraints, neither (Mersey or Burnie) hospital is adequately funded, adequately staffed, or adequately supported with technology and staff. Both have been marginally viable for some time. There have been seven external reports, usually produced at enormous cost, over the past 20 or so years, all of which have come out saying there needs to be just one viable and sustainable general hospital serving the northwest coast population.’

The Australian Nursing Federation’s Federal Secretary Jill Iliffe expressed serious concern at Howard’s ‘power driven political stunt’, adding that the takeover would not resolve the underlying problem of attracting medical specialists to the area.

The Australian Healthcare Association agreed, saying Howard was ‘gravely mistaken’ if he thought Mersey Hospital’s problems could be fixed with a cheque.

Even Tasmanian Senator Stephen Parry, from Howard’s own party, let slip to journalists while riding in a lift that Mersey Hospital was a ‘disaster’ and should be closed.

Mersey takeover ‘absolute vandalism’

A leading health economist Professor Jeff Richardson described the Mersey take-over as ‘absolute vandalism’.

‘It’s just the reverse of what the Prime Minister is saying: it’s utterly irresponsible. The state’s clinical services plan, put forward by a group of experts, was based on the fact that there is a limited population and limited capacity to attract specialists,’ he told The Australian.

Professor Richardson says that any attempt to operate intensive care units at Mersey Hospital as well as Burnie, 50 kilometres away, would result in patient deaths.

‘Tasmanians will pay with the quality of their care and with their lives. They will have blood on their hands,’ he said.

Investigations by Tony Abbott’s own department have exposed the opportunistic nature of the government’s intervention.

Abbott now refuses to guarantee an intensive care unit – a key promise when the takeover was announced – after investigations by his own department concluded that an ICU could be unfeasible and unsafe.

This revelation led to a tart response from AMA State President Haydn Walters.

‘Any open, transparent, objective review will say the same thing the last seven reviews have said over the past 30 years, which is that only one hospital can possibly be viable on the northwest coast providing broad, acute services. How many times do you need the same analysis?’