Public health first!

A local community group was a key driver behind the campaign to keep Bowral Hospital in public hands.

Sue Moule, branch secretary of our Bowral branch, has no doubt that the energy and commitment of a local community group – Public Health First – was pivotal in retaining Bowral Hospital in public ownership.

“In March, the association organised a rally at Bradman Oval near the Bradman museum. That really put the idea into people’s heads to form a community organisation.

“We had done petitions before that and spoken on local radio. We had a night at the pub when Brett Holmes spoke. Edna Carmichael and her group picked up on that and got up and ran with it.”

Edna, a retired teacher, says Public Health First came about when her friend, Gordon Markwart, suggested “why don’t we get together with other people and see what happens”.

“So four of us decided we would take this on as an action and see what we could do. We became the four pairs of feet on the ground. Meanwhile there were other people in the background doing research, making donations, writing letters and making comments on various websites. Some were going to some of the forums with South West Sydney LHD, to find out what they were saying. Some were emailing other people: basically that’s how we put the campaign together.

“One of the people involved in the group was involved in the promotion of more appropriate development for the highlands and she had an email list of almost 400. That was a very good resource for us to commence our community engagement.”

It was about what was right for the community

Edna says she and her cofounders were making “a statement against private partnerships and the government not taking responsibility for its own actions”.

But they were also driven by a clear analysis of the impact of such a massive change for the community.

“As a community group we couldn’t understand what the hospital was going to gain out of having a relationship with a private provider like Ramsay. Although Ramsay runs a very smooth, well-organised (private) hospital up here it does not really meet the definition of what we would understand to be a hospital, with much of it’s work being day surgery. We couldn’t see how they were going to offer extra services to the community,” she said.

“The LHD said there would be $50 million more from the PPP. As we started going to their meet-and-greets we discovered we weren’t going to get much more than a brand new building.”

Edna says there didn’t seem to be any thought put into assessing the needs of an ageing population or the impact on the less well off people in the community.

“There are a lot of retirees who you might think are well off but it’s not true. There are a lot of people doing mining work or factory work that are on a low income around here. There is affluence here but there are also people who are not very well-off at all.”

Strong public support

Edna says the level of public support for the campaign was high from the beginning.

“On 13 March, we held our public meeting with close to 300 people. There were 140 people who came to a SWS LHD meeting – after we forced them to call one. There wouldn’t be two weeks go by without something in the newspaper about the hospital – either written by the paper or through letters to the editor.

“We went to all of the local markets month after month. We did street meet-and-greets with handouts and continued that all the way. We were at the Bowral market – the largest market in this area – just to let people know what we doing and how they could help. There was plenty of public interest in what we were doing.

“This hospital started out with the community raising money for it back in the 1880s because the government wasn’t coming forward with plans for a hospital. Therefore there is quite a community spirit about the hospital here.”

Putting privatisation under the microscope

The group not only put a lot of work into building support for the campaign. They also put the government’s plan under the microscope.

“We tried to get a copy of the clinical services plan for Bowral Hospital but weren’t able to get it. We put a motion to the local council and they were able to get it. We went through that carefully.

“There were people on our committee who had good skills. They had experience in health infrastructure, one was a demographer, and there was an engineer who had a long history of working with the development of health facilities, including setting up the medical faculty at the University of Wollongong. They were able to help us go over various statistics and information. We analysed the clinical services plan and came to a determination that the plan wasn’t even about Bowral. Out of 127 pages Bowral wasn’t mentioned very much.

“Looking at the analysis and the graphs we could see quite clearly that they were not going to provide the types of services that this community were going to need.”

Next steps

Edna says the group feels very excited about the government’s backdown on privatisation but “we’ve got other things to do now. We’re working on that – to try and get enough money for the hospital because it deserves it.

“In 2009 the Treasury said it required $110 million for redevelopment. So if the Treasury said it needed $110 million then we are saying it now needs $160 million. That’s what we are working towards.”

Sue Moule says the nurses and midwives at Bowral hospital would like to give a big thank you to Public Health First for all the work they put in.

“We wanted the public to take on a public health issue. It was brilliant that this community group got up and ran with it.”