First some good news. The recent reversal by the Federal Government of its proposed funding cuts to Victorian public hospitals has ensured the reinstatement of $107 million to the system this year. In a system that costs some billions of dollars a year to run, the amount being restored is relatively small, but still significant.
We can reasonably assume now that more patients will be treated than would otherwise have been the case. It is also likely that hospital surgery waiting lists won’t blow out as much as they would have if the Government went ahead with its plan to withdraw the cash. And perhaps some Victorian health sector jobs that would have disappeared will be saved – at least for now.
But it would be a mistake to draw much comfort from the backdown by Federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek. Some Victorian hospital managers had already started sacking or transferring staff when the funding reversal was announced. The fear now is that hospitals will use the reinstated money elsewhere and make do with even lower staffing levels than before.
Victoria’s Premier, Ted Baillieu, whose government has signalled plans to wreak some havoc of its own on the finances of the state’s hospital system, was at least right when he described Canberra’s reversal on funding cuts as a quick political fix.
The initial plan to cut federal hospital funding to Victoria, announced in October last year, was prompted by revised data from the 2011 census which, Canberra asserted, showed population figures on which the hospitals’ money had been calculated were overstated. As a result, the Gillard Government said Victoria would get $475 million less than it was expecting over four years.
The subsequent backdown came after months of political warfare over the issue with between the state and federal governments. But as Mr Baillieu has observed, Canberra’s backdown is only good for this year – a federal election year. There is no assurance that the federal money slated for withdrawal from Victorian hospitals beyond 2013 will be reinstated. And, by inference, there is no guarantee against further bed closures, job losses and cancelled operations.
More broadly, there is no sign that the incessant blame shifting between Canberra and the states over Australia’s woefully inadequate hospital funding – a situation that impacts so unfairly and needlessly on patients and health workers – is going to end any time soon.
Public hospitals, as those who work in them can attest, were under intense budgetary pressure long before the latest outbreak of political jousting. As our society has aged, demand for hospital services, and health services in general, has grown rapidly and in an entirely predictable way. It will continue to do so. Yet governments — state and federal, Coalition and Labor — have consistently failed to provide sufficient money to keep up with society’s exploding demand for health services.
The current split in responsibilities for hospital funding – Canberra puts up about 39 per cent of the money, and the State Government just over 50 per cent – provides a convenient platform for each to blame the other for the increasingly dire state of the system. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd provided a glimmer of hope a few years ago when he promised to revolutionise hospital funding in a way that would end ‘’the blame game’’ between Canberra and the states. But he did little more than shuffle the percentages. Nothing has really changed.
How could things be changed? What needs to happen to get a funding system in place that would provide a decent level of service for patients, and better working conditions and job security for health professionals like you?
From our perspective at the Health Services Union Victorian Branch 3, there seems no point in trying to apportion blame between Canberra and Spring Street for the current situation. Clearly there is culpability on both sides.
What is more certain is that at some time in the future, our politicians collectively will have to stop pointing fingers at each other and confront the financial reality of paying for the health-care needs of an ageing society. More taxes will have to be raised, or massive savings found in other areas, to keep the system from breaking.
Australia is a wealthy country. We can afford to maintain a first-rate public hospital system. That it is being allowed to wither is a travesty. We would like to think that our politicians will not wait for the system to deteriorate further before they will find the courage or the will to fix it. But don’t count on it.