“HEALTH has been a political football – it’s got a lot of bad press,” says Minister for Health Katy Gallagher.
But Gallagher is resolute that, if re-elected on October 20, she won’t be stepping down from her role as Minister, a position she has held for six years.
“I think I’ve got staying power,” she says.
“Many others wouldn’t have stuck around and I believe if you get health right, and if you get jobs right, this city really will be something special.”
But Liberals health spokesman Jeremy Hanson says he is “extremely concerned” with the culture of the health system, and believes it won’t improve without a change of government.
Labor has delivered what Gallagher calls a “comprehensive” health plan ahead of this month’s election, with key commitments including a new northside sub-acute hospital at the University of Canberra, a new birthing centre at Calvary Hospital and $20 million to provide more cancer outpatient services.
Gallagher says a health system under her leadership will focus on “a complete rebuild of the health system”.
“We’re only four years into what is probably a 10 to 12-year program of reform and that’s really about making possible somewhere where people want to go, and have places in the community for those who don’t need to be in hospital to go,” she says.
“It’s about how we provide services, so in the last four years we’ve opened a new adult mental health unit, we’ve opened stage one of the women’s and children’s hospital, we’ve opened new operating theatres, new wards, we’re building community health centres, we’ve got a new public hospital.”
However Hanson believes the culture of health won’t improve without a change of government.
“We saw that culture lead to the emergency department scandal where [a former executive] was doctoring emergency data results on a massive scale,” he says.
“To change the culture, you’ve got to start with leadership at the top. I’ve got energy, I’ve got the drive, and the preparedness to change the culture and the preparedness to tell the truth.”
The Canberra Liberals have announced a $7 billion plan for the health system, including a new north Canberra sub-acute hospital, urgent care clinics in Tuggeranong and Gungahlin, $5m to support general practices and $1m a year to go towards preventative health measures.
Hanson believes the urgent-care clinic in particular will help “ease emergency waiting times.”
“At the moment we’ve got reports of people waiting as long as 20 hours for surgery,” he says.
“The clinics will be like an outpost of the emergency department, with X-ray and pathology. Everyone knows doctors and nurses work best together.”
Hanson believes the most “unresolved” issue in health is the data doctoring scandal, where a Canberra Hospital executive admitted to altering hundreds of medical records in an attempt to improve waiting time records.
But Gallagher, who was cleared of any misconduct in the affair by the auditor-general after revealing her sister worked with the disgraced executive, says she has “no regrets” in her handling of the issue.
“You know these are matters for judgement. I stood aside, I identified the potential for a conflict of interest and, frankly, regardless of the reasons for doing that, that would have been the same outcome,” she says.
“All that’s left to do now is the records need to be amended, and the true picture given and that is happening, and the individual who has done it has resigned. I’m not sure there’s anything you can do other than tell everyone what’s happened, fix it, and then support the people who have been affected by it.”
Admitting the role as Minister for Health has given her “more than a few grey hairs”, Gallagher also says it has also been a “great privilege”.
“When people go back and write the journals of history in Canberra I think they will see in my time as health minister I made the most comprehensive plan for the health system and I’ve stuck around to implement it,” she says.
“You won’t find a health system in the world that doesn’t need to improve, there’s always pressure, there might be different areas of pressure, ours is the emergency department and elective surgery… but you also have to look at the system as a whole, and it’s much more than that, much more.”
Hanson agrees there’s no “quick fix” of the health system.
“What I’ve tried to do is put out a paper that had a long-term view that stretched out to 2020 where we see the peak demand from our ageing and growing population,” he says.
“And what you’re seeing now is some of the policies we’ve put forward and there will be others that actually will help to realise that strategy. But I accept there’s no quick fix. I realise there’s a lot of hard work to be done.”