Wallsend fights for nursing home

Opposition builds against State Government privatisation plan.

The last time a State Government picked a fight with the people of Wallsend over cuts to health services, thousands of residents rallied in protest and the locals maintained an 18-month picket line outside the district hospital.

The fierce resistance took the then Greiner Liberal government by surprise. While it eventually succeeded in closing the hospital, it had to keep a range of specialist services on site including the 103-bed Wallsend Aged Care Facility (WACF).

Almost 18 years later, the Rees Labor government has announced it will privatise WACF – one of 11 State-owned nursing homes being offered to non-government operators (see box).

The proposal again has the Wallsend community on Newcastle’s western outskirts up in arms.

Families and supporters of WACF residents have signed more than 800 letters to local Labor MP Sonia Hornery, whom nurses say is ‘very supportive’ of their stand against privatisation.

Nurses have held community meetings and collected around 4000 signatures on a petition against privatisation at information stalls at shopping centres. The campaign includes a website: www.save-wacf.com

Louise Howell RN, the NSWNA delegate at WACF, said nurses raised the issue with the Minister for Health, John Della Bosca, at a Newcastle community forum in March.

‘The minister listened to what we had to say and accepted our invitation to visit the facility. We hope to hear more from him at the Newcastle community forum feedback meeting on 28 May,’ Louise said.

‘There is strong community support to keep the facility in government hands and it’s gathering momentum all the time.’

NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes, who spoke with many of the 90 WACF nurses at a protest BBQ as part of their campaign, described privatisation as ‘just a way for the State Government to transfer costs to the Federal Government. Despite the way it is being dressed up, this has little to do with resident care outcomes.’

WACF nurses are convinced their residents – many with complex and challenging needs – get a higher standard of care than they could under private control of the facility.

‘The non-government sector generally delivers a good standard of care given their limited resources, but they don’t have the staffing ratios we have,’ said Louise Howell.

‘We have a NUM and a RN on every floor, every day, to look after residents with highly complex needs, which many private facilities don’t want to be responsible for.

‘About one third of our residents have disabilities, one third have dementia with challenging behaviour including psychiatric disorders, and the others are palliative residents with high care needs.

‘There are about 25 young people with multi-faceted disabilities and especially brain injuries, often on peg feeds or “trachies”.

‘We are 100% concessional, which means none of our residents need to pay accommodation bonds. Many are socially disadvantaged, don’t own a home and couldn’t afford to pay for care.’

History of battling for services

The former coal mining community of Wallsend is so protective of their health service partly because they contributed heavily to its upkeep for 100 years.

Mineworkers raised money to build Wallsend Hospital in 1892 on land donated by the Newcastle-Wallsend Mining Co. Before then, the miners lived constantly with the danger of death and injury but lacked close and reliable health services.

Until the mid-1960s, it was a community hospital supported by mineworkers’ levies, local donations and funds from the State Government, and run by a community board.

Even after the State took control the hospital maintained strong links with the mining community. In 1990 alone, the miners’ union donated $130,000 to the hospital.

The Greiner Government announced the hospital would close by August 1991, but staff kept it open to the end of September by refusing to discharge patients to other hospitals. Nurses were reportedly threatened with deregistration after they met with local doctors to persuade them to keep admitting patients.

After the closure, hospital staff and supporters maintained a 24-hour picket line for 18 months, determined to have the hospital reopened and to prevent equipment being taken away.

The picket succeeded in retaining the hospital buildings and property in the Hunter public health system.

11 facilities marked for sale

The NSW Government has called for expressions of interest for non-government organisations to operate 11 NSW government-owned nursing homes. They are:

  • Corowa District Nursing Home
  • Garrawarra Centre, Waterfall
  • Governor Phillip Nursing Home, Penrith
  • Hillcrest Nursing Home, Gloucester
  • Kimbarra Lodge Hostel, Gloucester
  • Holbrook Hospital Nursing Home
  • Leeton Hospital Aged Care Unit
  • Murrumburrah-Harden District Nursing Home
  • Muswellbrook Aged Care Facility
  • Queen Victoria Memorial Home, Picton
  • Wallsend Aged Care Facility.