Tasmanian health crisis worsens


By Alex Bainbridge

HOBART — The establishment media have kept quiet about the continuing health funding crisis in Tasmania after hints from the state government that it is aiming for a balanced budget in May.

The funding crisis became headline news after the Royal Hobart Hospital announced on February 11 that all elective surgery would be frozen until the end of the financial year. The Mercury newspaper reported on February 12 that the government was trying to plug a "potential $70 million shortfall" with $35 million in savings from the health budget — $3.9 million from the public hospital system.

The state branch of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) on February 12 rejected further "savings". The Mercury reported AMA Tasmanian president Dr Walpole saying that savings from the hospital system would "severely disrupt patient services and exacerbate patient hardship".

Criticism from doctors continued when the Australian Doctors' Fund issued a media release quoting Tasmanian chairperson of the Australian Association of Surgeons, Dr Michael Wertheimer, saying "We have to stop kidding ourselves that we have a public hospital system in Tasmania". The media release said that Royal Hobart Hospital had been virtually closed for surgical services since November and is "nothing more than a shell of its former self".

Unions on February 16 demanded that the Labor government abandon its budget surplus goal and divert funds to health. The next day, unions stopped commenting publicly after being promised a private briefing by the government.

On February 18, the government announced that it was now aiming for a balanced budget, undercutting the unions' demand that funds from the budget surplus be diverted to health.

Wertheimer told Green Left Weekly on February 26 that he had a hospital memo indicating that all elective surgery has been cancelled until June 30. The reason given in the memo is that building work at the hospital has interrupted surgery. Wertheimer suggested that this was an excuse, adding that there was no indication that surgery would resume after June 30.

The Democratic Socialists' Dr Kamala Emanuel told Green Left that unions should demand an urgent infusion of funds into the health budget and an increase in funding for next year. "The government's penny pinching in health contrasts markedly with its willingness to offer huge incentives to private companies to relocate to Tasmania", she said.