Good start by govt but challenges prevail – February 2008

The new Federal Government has made a promising start dealing with the massive problems plaguing our public health system but the greatest challenge – keeping nurses and midwives in the system – remains in front of it.

The Rudd Government has flagged health reform as a top priority, with commendable initiatives to reduce waiting lists and to attract nurses and midwives back into the public hospital system.

Under the Howard Government, the Commonwealth’s contribution to the public health budget had shrunk to 42%. Kevin Rudd’s announcement of an extra $150 million a year for the next four years to reduce hospital waiting lists is, at least, an acknowledgement that a lack of Federal funding has been part of the problem and extra money for public hospitals is part of the solution. Similarly, the Federal Government’s announcement of financial incentives to attract nurses and midwives back into the public hospital system is an acknowledgement that workforce issues are central to the health system’s problems.

These problems are so wide and deep that these initiatives can only be seen as tentative first steps towards fixing them.

For public hospitals, the last decade has been one of wilful neglect and a denial of responsibility by the Federal Government. There has been an ongoing blame game by self-absorbed Federal and State Governments at the expense of patients and hospital staff.

An honest assessment of the problems and a constructive and cooperative partnership between the States and Federal Government in solving them are trends in the right direction.

The Rudd Government’s scheme to attract nurses and midwives back into our public hospitals will see those out of the system for more than a year get a $3,000 payment after 6 months work and another $3,000 12 months later. Hospitals will also receive $1,000 for every nurse and midwife re-employed.

While this may seem unfair to nurses and midwives already working in our hospitals, getting more of them into the public health system is a key to reducing workloads and is to the benefit of everyone.

The NSWNA recognises it is a step in the right direction but this won’t be enough to fill the 1,300-plus recorded vacancies that exist in NSW alone. Nor does it deal with the long-term retention of nurses and midwives as unbearable workloads and ever-increasing responsibilities burn out many of those still in the system.

Retaining staff in the current environment of our public hospitals remains a serious challenge to both tiers of government.

This year our campaign for better pay and recognition for NSW public health system nurses and midwives will give the NSW and Federal Labor Governments an opportunity that only comes by once every four years to make the nursing profession a rewarding one, which will attract nurses and midwives back into the system and convince the ones that are there to stay.

Our proposed claim (see page 12) is a reasonable one and formed after a long and broad consultation with nurses and midwives. We have listened very clearly to what they say is required to take the pressure off them and to make the public hospital system an attractive place to work. They have been very clear about what they see is needed:

  • better recognition and pay for in-creased workloads and responsibility;
  • incentives to attract and retain nursing and midwifery staff to ensure a safe working environment; and
  • more support for nurses and midwives.

Our proposed claim is based on an honest analysis from those on the frontline about the issues and problems that have led to an intractable shortage of nurses and midwives.  If the NSW State Government and the Federal Government are serious about fixing our public health system they too will listen to what nurses and midwives are saying is needed to attract and keep them in our hospitals.