Western Victoria’s public health in the firing line

Patient services are being targeted for closure at the University Hospital in Geelong.

Sources have informed Green Left Weekly that the new CEO of Barwon Health in Victoria is on the warpath and the target appears to be patient services.

Barwon Health incorporates University Hospital Geelong, Geelong’s only public hospital and the only tertiary-level hospital outside of Metropolitan Melbourne. The hospital’s catchment area extends from Werribee to the South Australian border, encompassing more than 350,000 Victorians and up to 500,000 for certain specialised treatments.

Anonymous management sources have expressed deep frustration at the recent shift in focus that sees financial concerns take precedence over the provision of healthcare.

The discontent appears to be directly related to the extent to which a CEO, a non-clinical administrator, is able to encroach on decision-making processes that directly impact on the provision of clinical services.

There are many services that exist only within public hospitals. This is a direct result of the fact that these procedures are complex, costly and require specialist knowledge. In the case of public hospitals, the profit motive does not operate as there is no money to be made.

The shift in focus is of particular concern for paediatric patients in need of specialised care. There is genuine fear that these children will need to make the journey to Melbourne to get the treatment they need if these cuts to services go ahead.

Speaking to GLW, Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association (VAHPA) secretary Craig McGregor said: “The population in Geelong is growing at around 1.6% per annum. The demand for care is huge and growing rapidly.

“The [Daniel] Andrews government and [health minister] Jill Hennessy need to be increasing services in the area rather than appointing neoliberal operatives to do their dirty work,” he said.

Sarah Hathway, the Victorian Socialists candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of Geelong in the November state elections, told GLW: “It is a disgrace that this new CEO is overseeing a reduction in services that will impact on children and low-income earners and that this is occurring under the watch of a Labor state government.

“This is further evidence that regardless of which major party is in government the agenda of privatisation and service cuts continues.

“Victorian Socialists provides an alternative to the status quo. We will campaign for properly funded public health.”

It is estimated that the demand for medical imaging services in Barwon Health’s catchment area is set to grow by 6.75%, averaged across all modalities including ultrasound, CT and MRI scans.

This figure does not contemplate any additional growth associated with new services, improved standards of care and rising community expectations.

Yet radiology is in the firing line.

Barwon Health has identified its first radiology closure will be the Torquay X-ray service. The centre provides important bulk-billing X-ray services to local patients who would otherwise have to travel to Geelong. It also supports a large Allied Health service and a GP clinic.

GLW also understands that after years of struggle the region has managed to secure a new multi-million dollar CT scanner. Yet, it appears that a management directive has ruled out the allocation of additional workers needed to run the scanner. These include radiographers and nurses.

This is not only bad news for local patients and those seeking work — health is the largest employer in the region — but it looks set to weigh heavily on existing staff who are being pressured to cover the service despite already dealing with significant workload stress.

GLW also understand that a mooted reduction in services will see outpatients unable to access certain fluoroscopic examinations, many of which are only available in the public sector.

“Victoria’s public hospitals are there to help Victorians, full stop,” said McGregor.

“That’s why we pay tax. That’s why we employ hospital CEOs. To oversee the provision of high-quality healthcare. It is an obligation.

“I don’t care how much time they’ve spent reading von Hayek or how ambitious they are, healthcare must come first. Once these services are gone they are very hard to get back.”

[Tim Gooden is the Victorian Socialists lead candidate for Western Victoria Region Legislative Council seat in the November state elections.]