A health policy expert says a massive overhaul of the western Victoria hospital system will benefit the region, but only if the government makes certain firm commitments.
In July, Ballarat, Horsham, Stawell and Edenhope Health Services agreed to merge and submitted a proposal to the Victorian government for approval.
Despite nine months of consultation before the move, many residents say they know very little about how the merger works.
The community champion
After 34 years as a surgeon and a member of the board of directors at Wimmera Base Hospital in Horsham, Ian Campbell hung up the scrubs.
But with plans underway for a health services merger in western Victoria, he feels the need to speak up.
Mr Campbell says he, like many others, is worried that small hospitals will lose services and jobs to Ballarat.
Each health service has been guaranteed at least one seat on the nine-person board of directors of the proposed new organization, with the government to make appointments based on necessary skills.
Wimmera Base Hospital currently offers 80 different health services, including several surgery and obstetrics that Campbell says shouldn’t be outsourced.
Health services say a merger will help them attract staff to small hospitals, not eliminate them.
Maree Aitken, president of the Wimmera Health Care Group that runs the hospital, says her organization is struggling to fill many specialist positions.
More than 2,200 people travel outside of Wimmera, which has a population of 50,000, to either Ballarat or Melbourne each year for hospitalizations.
According to hospitals, there has been a 12% increase in surgical waiting lists and 5.8% growth in service levels at Ballarat over the past five years, while admissions have declined at Edenhope and Stawell. .
Health services are also reporting that residents of Wimmera have higher rates of certain cancers, diabetes, heart disease, respiratory disease, and hospital admissions for preventable conditions than the state average.
The independent voice
Professor Stephen Duckett of the Grattan Institute, who has advised the government on previous mergers, supports the plan.
He says it could help hospitals with fewer resources improve staff training and patient care.
“There isn’t a lot of money to save in these small rural towns, so you have to protect what’s there and make sure what’s going to happen is of better quality,” he says.
“I think there were a lot of mergers in NSW 10 or 20 years ago that took resources away from small hospitals, so they were done more as budget cuts than quality improvement.
Professor Duckett says he doesn’t believe the government wants to see more mergers in the Victoria area.
But he says the state government must guarantee benefits at each hospital if the health minister approves the plan.
“When you say to the little town ‘look at Edenhope, this is what you have now, this is what you will have and it will be better’ … there should be a signature on a piece of paper that makes it says it’s going to happen, so the city can have confidence that it’s doing the right thing, not just for today, but for the future, ”he said.
The CBA filed an Freedom of Information request for the merger business case, but the state government refused to release it.
The lack of information was noted by residents of western Victoria, with a petition against the plan drafted by Lowan MP Emma Kealy, drawing 3,648 signatures.
The health ministry says it will only support a merger that ensures better or safer services and no downsizing or facility closures.
He did not respond directly to Professor Duckett’s suggestion of a written engagement after approval.
Ballarat Health Services president Natalie Reiter said she had received writing from the government that it did not intend to cut funding for any of the hospitals if it approved the merger.
Beyond surgeries and contracts, Campbell says Horsham also doesn’t want to lose the community spirit that locally controlled health services can maintain.
“And the larger the organization, the more individual control and flexibility in the workplace disappears.
Minister Foley’s decision on the proposal is expected by the end of the year.