By Amanda Stroud
NSW Minister for Health Jillian Skinner blew through the Far South Coast last Thursday bringing healing winds of change with her.
She gave an ironclad guarantee that Pambula Hospital would not be closed now or in the near future, delivering that message to members of Save Our Hospital Inc (SOHI) Sharon Tapscott, Frank Simonson, Wolfgang Kaspar and Councillor Russell Fitzpatrick.
She also told acting chair of the Southern NSW Local Health District board, Jenny Symons, that, not only would Pambula Hospital stay open, it would be run transparently, accountably and within budget.
“Your hospital is staying open,” were almost the first words out of Minister Skinner’s mouth at 3pm on Thursday afternoon as she took charge of the meeting.
“It’s not closing. It was penned as closing by the former (NSW Labor) government, not us,” she stated.
Emeritus Professor of the University of NSW, Wolfgang Kaspar sought quick clarification from the minister.
“I only have one question. Are you prepared to consider a model of health that takes us (Pambula Hospital) out of the umbrella of the central bureaucracy, like the Orbost Hospital model?” he asked.
Ms Skinner responded, “I know the Orbost model...and I’m very prepared to consider it but not entirely outside the district (health service model), and it can’t be, neither is Orbost, it works very closely with the local health service. Not only from the insurance perspectives but the liability for the kind of problems that arose in relation to a certain doctor that was practising down here, then I think you would be exposing yourself.
“But in terms of a multi purpose model where you have a local advisory council very much involved in describing the future of the hospital, very involved in how the funds (are spent), which I distribute under the new COAG arrangements, in block funding for a hospital of this size, if you want that sort of model then I’m very prepared to consider it.
“You’re not totally autonomous but you’ll have a much greater say and I think it’s an exciting opportunity,” she said.
“Bega (the new South East Regional Hospital) will have much enhanced acute care. You will need to have complementary care here at Pambula which will have a very long future, believe me, sub-acute care and other roles that you will work out for yourselves and I want you to come up with ideas, those models of care.”
Ms Skinner then announced the formation of a Local Advisory Council (LAC) and, pointing to Mrs Tapscott, Mr Kaspar, Dr Simonson and Cr Fitzpatrick, said she personally wanted them to form the LAC and be members of it.
Cr Fitzpatrick was quick to point out that the LAC risked being a “toothless tiger” if there wasn’t a significant change in approach by the current health board.
Ms Skinner gave an undertaking that, if the LAC found their recommendations were not being implemented, she would hold the area health administration to account as to “why not”.
According to Ms Skinner, at a meeting held the previous Friday attended by around 150 health board members, “they were raving about how much responsibility and information they have.”
SOHI president Sharon Tapscott asked the minister if some health boards had proven more effective than others, as in her view, SOHI’s dealings with the local health board were “nothing to rave about”.
Ms Skinner acknowledged there had been problems with the local health board but stood by the health restructure put in place by the Liberal NSW government since it came to power just over 12 months ago.
“The pillars that were recommended by Garling (Special Commission of Inquiry into Acute Care Services in NSW Public Hospitals, by Commissioner Peter Garling) have been strongly enhanced. We’ve created a health ministry and abolished the department which is now about policy, strategic planning and purchasing. We’ve cut down the central bureaucracy by 25 per cent, we’ve abolished the middle layer of bureaucracy by 9000 jobs and are putting the expertise down to the local level where they have been having problems.”
“But that doesn’t seem to have translated to Pambula in terms of improvements,” Mrs Tapscott said.
Further discussion centred around the low morale of staff at Pambula Hospital and the ever-present Save Pambula Hospital signs dotted around the Bega Valley Shire.
Andrew Constance asked that they be taken down following Ms Skinners’ assurance of the hospital’s future, as one step towards building better morale.
Acting health board chair Jenny Symons said: “I understand its going to take a leap of faith. I understand that’s a hard thing to do. Once we take that leap of faith, we both take it, then I think we’ve got a chance to turn this titanic around.
“I’ve seen the breakdown of trust. I could only speculate about where that breakdown occurred. All I can do is try to work with you to take those steps, that leap of faith to make it better.”
Still sceptical, Sharon Tapscott would not commit to the signs coming down straight away.
“Building morale and taking leaps of faith works both ways. We’ll see where this takes us before the signs come down.”