Health crisis hits Illawarra

Borrowing heavily from the former Labor government's fraudulent "Beds to the West" campaign, the Greiner Liberal government is adopting divide and rule tactics against NSW South Coast communities in its latest attempt to slash health services. The Illawarra's Bulli hospital is now under threat of downgrading or closure. Bulli was originally built and maintained largely with subscriptions from local mineworkers and other residents.

The government is claiming northern Illawarra services must be cut to free around $3 million for the growing Nowra-Shoalhaven area, but Illawarra residents rejected this view at an 800-strong public meeting on February 11.

The meeting discussed and unanimously rejected the recently released Reid-Harris Report, a $17,000 government-commissioned study kept under wraps from its completion on December 20 until three weeks ago. Even local members of parliament were shut out of an Area Health Board meeting on it.

While the meeting didn't dispute the need for additional services in the Shoalhaven region, it strongly opposed the government's rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach. The government's job may have been made easier by a split between local Labor MPs and South Coast independent John Hatton. The ALP members accuse Hatton of selling out to Greiner.

The government's $2.5 million privatisation advertising campaign also came under fire at the meeting. "The money is there, but it's not equalised out", said local activist Sally Bowen. "We'll end up like America, where sick people die in the streets because they can't afford to pay for health care", declared another speaker. The latest government moves give new meaning to the bushrangers' old cry, "your money or your life", said yet another.

The meeting declared the report flawed and politically motivated because it targets a strongly Labor-voting area for cutbacks, just as happened last year in the Hunter.

Save Bulli Hospital Committee spokesperson Jenny Faires says the report underestimates the growing health needs of the region. It recommends what amounts to a freeze on health funding to the region for the next 11 years while expected population growth would create a need for an extra 140 beds.

Dr Michael Meagher, head of the Illawarra Medical Staff Council, reminded the meeting that much of the present underfunding of medical services was inherited from the previous Labor government, and questioned the statistical basis of the report. He said it was compiled in two months, with the consultants spending only two weeks in the region.

Other cuts recommended by the report include downgrading Kiama hospital to a polyclinic, closing the Palliative Care Unit at David Berry Hospital, which itself would eventually be downgraded to a shelving of plans for a teaching hospital in Wollongong.

This last point casts a shadow over much of the health plan for the region, as the Area Health Board has for many years poured funds into developing an Illawarra Regional Hospital based on amalgamation of Wollongong and Port Kembla hospitals. Part of this project was based on the expectation of extra funds from government approval of teaching hospital status.

To the disgust of the local community, which contributed $1.5 million towards a cancer care unit as the first stage of a $50 million Clinical Services Block at Wollongong, this project has been suspended by the government at the large-hole-in-ground stage.

The Medical Staff Council, supported by the South Coast Labour Council, has called on the federal government to provide extra funds for the block in its coming economic statement. The staff council believes this would meet an urgent need while creating 800 construction jobs.

Shadow NSW health minister Dr Andrew Refshauge told the meeting the report's recommendations would not be carried out by a Labor government, but refused to guarantee that Labor would restore services that had been cut.

The meeting called on the Area Health Board to stand up to the government, and the board has begun to do this by proceeding with plans to hand over Kiama hospital to a community cooperative instead of downgrading it. Final say on this rests with the Health Department, which has said the Kiama plan could jeopardise all of the report's recommendations.

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