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Failing hospitals damned by poor government 

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith… hang your head in shame.

“There is no one else to blame. Just after Labor came into government in 2002-03, the ACT waiting times in emergency departments were amongst the best in Australia. They are now the worst,” writes MICHAEL MOORE. 

HANG your head in shame, ACT Labor. Hang your head in shame, ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith. The latest AMA report card on our hospitals is a damning indictment on poor government and the parlous state of the ACT hospitals.

Michael Moore.

There is no one else to blame. Just after you came into government in 2002-03, the ACT waiting times in emergency departments were amongst the best in Australia. They are now the worst. In 2002-2003 around 75 per cent of patients were seen within the recommended half hour. This has dropped to less than half of that percentage.

To put this into perspective, 34 per cent of Canberra’s urgent emergency department patients are seen within the half-hour benchmark compared to the national average of 67 per cent. Prof Walter Abhayaratna, ACT president of the AMA, pointed out that the “ACT has been consistently the worst on this measure for the past decade”. 

The story with elective surgery waiting times is similar. The situation improved between 2010 and 2015, but has otherwise deteriorated significantly compared to when Labor came to power in late 2001. 

Many Canberrans blame the construction of the tram. Although there are benefits with light rail, government budgeting is about priorities. Amongst the highest priorities for the ACT should be, firstly, about keeping people healthy and, secondly, about looking after those who need care.

The extraordinary, world-leading vaccination rates in the ACT reflect a government and a community that prioritise keeping people healthy. However, the attitude to those who need care in our hospitals has become a lower and lower priority compared to other jurisdictions.

There are positive aspects as outlined by Prof Abhayaratna as illustrated by our community response to the pandemic. 

He explained: “The ACT government, our community, and our healthcare system rose to the occasion. The committed performance of our doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers has confirmed that our healthcare system can respond in a timely and effective way to major threats”.

The AMA ACT president along with the shadow minister, Giulia Jones, were careful to offer support to the hard-working doctors and nurses at the hospitals and to lay the blame squarely at the foot of the government. Rightly so! 

Hospital funding is the main issue. Per capita funding of the public hospitals in the ACT was just over $1600 in 2008-09 and was the same 10 years later. A significant cut in real terms. The Commonwealth contribution increased steadily over the same period.

Following questions to the Health Minister in the Assembly, Ms Jones argued that the minister would not “confront reality”. She dismissed the answer by Rachel Stephen-Smith arguing: “The minister maintained the data moved up and down, but since 2002 the trajectory has only been down”. 

Perhaps even more frustrating for Ms Jones was that the minister “also refused to say if the elective surgery wait times will improve in 2022”. On her Facebook presence she added: “It is completely unacceptable and Canberra deserves better healthcare”. 

In February, responding to a question on a specific case from Ms Jones, Rachel Stephen-Smith said: “One of the questions here is whether this individual was in fact waiting for elective surgery or whether he was waiting for an out-patient’s appointment”. 

Waiting for an out-patient’s appointment is still waiting. It is time that this lack of transparency, the “unofficial waiting list” hides the real situation and needs the light of day.

A note at the bottom of page 12 of the AMA report explains the situation (across Australia): “By the time the patient is added to the official elective surgery waiting list, they have already waited the period between referral from their general practitioner to the date of a consultation with out-patient specialists to assess their surgery urgency/need”.

“The AMA has been calling for the publication of the ‘hidden waitlist’ data for years. Without it, there is no transparency of just how long public patients currently have to wait for treatment. The AMA understands work is underway to publish this data in the next 12-24 months”.

Two decades of Labor governments in the ACT has taught us not to hold our breath on such work being completed within two years. The government fears that the publication of these figures will simply be another damning indictment on the abysmal state of our ACT hospitals compared to the rest of Australia.

Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health. He has been a political columnist with “CityNews” since 2006.

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Michael Moore

Michael Moore

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3 Responses to Failing hospitals damned by poor government 

Jennifer Bruce says: November 18, 2021 at 12:58 pm

The building of the tram is all the ACT government seem to be interested in, they cut buses making it longer and harder to get around for those that rely on public transport, they couldn’t care less about the health system, or providing better housing conditions for people on low incomes, watch out Mr Barr at the next election

Angela Brown says: November 19, 2021 at 6:50 am

5 1/2 years and still waiting for an appointment with a hand surgeon. When I called earlier in 2021 I was told I was second on the list. Wow. So what do I expect another 5 1/2 years wait?


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