Sunday, March 21, 2010


Putting wealth into health is wisest

By Paul Howes

From: The Sunday Telegraph March 21, 2010 12:02PM

ANY parent with young children can tell you there's nothing more anxiety-inducing than a trip to hospital when one of the little ones is ill.
Since the age of two, my son Sam has suffered from severe bouts of chronic asthma.

He developed it when we lived in Melbourne and at one point my wife and I felt the Royal Children's Hospital was like a second home.

Now returned to Sydney, Sam still frequently requires hospitalisation.

Recently he developed a bit of a cough, my wife took him to hospital and it turned out he had double walking pneumonia and a collapsed lung, on top of his asthma.

I'm always amazed by the dedication and long working hours of the nurses, doctors and support staff at the Sydney Children's Hospital, Randwick when we are there.

The level of care is second to none and despite the clear lack of resources I'm in awe of how hard the health professionals work, and thankful for the life-saving treatment provided to Sam by those professionals on a regular basis.

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But despite the dedication of the nurses, doctors and staff in the hospitals, it's not hard to notice the clear lack of available resources in our public hospitals.

Many times when the doctors have admitted my son, there has been a long wait in emergency until a bed becomes available in an intensive care unit or on the wards.

On the corridors of the hospitals you can see the strain and stress in the eyes of the nurses and doctors who work so hard, and the difficulty they face in trying to find beds for critically ill children.

That's why I'm so pleased health is shaping up this year as a key federal election issue.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's proposed national health and hospitals network represents the most significant shake-up of our health system since the introduction of Medicare.

The proposed reforms have significant implications for the structure of our health and hospitals system.

Local hospitals will be empowered to make decisions about local health management, and hospitals will be paid directly for what they actually do.

Most significantly, it means the federal government will now take direct responsibility for the funding of our health system.

This guarantees certainty for our health system and also means the state budgets can be freed up in the future to focus on other areas that have been neglected for far too long.

Once some certainty is achieved in the NSW Budget, the state government can focus on areas such as public transport and infrastructure.

It means that we should be able to build the missing links in our road system -- like finally getting the M4 to connect western Sydney directly to the CBD and extending the light-rail network to places such as the University of NSW and Dulwich Hill.

The implications of the reforms for the people that deliver health-care services are significant.

Brett Holmes, secretary of the NSW Nurses' Association, has said that although the union is still working through the detail of the proposed reforms, it is important that the federal government becomes the central funding body for health services.

"The real issues in hospital and healthcare are funding, staffing and skill mix," he said. "The plan initially commits the federal government to 60 per cent of hospital funding and 100 per cent of primary or community health funding.

The ongoing challenge is 60 and 100 per cent of what amount?

In the end, it's real dollars, not percentages, that buy hospital and primary health care.

This is an important point. As Brett Holmes knows, at the end of the day it's the dollars that matter, which is why it's important that we examine carefully what Tony Abbott did to health funding when he was the health minister under John Howard.

Tony Abbott is running a million miles a hour away from his record of funding cuts, but the fact of the matter is that $1 billion was cut from public health funding during his time as health minister. He began by cutting $108 million in the 2003 Budget, then $172 million in 2004, $264 million in 2005 and $372 million in 2006.

Mr Abbott, the great oppositionist, is opposing the reforms. Not for long though, I imagine, because it's not a popular stance.

This week an Auspoll survey of 1000 respondents found that 76 per cent of those questioned supported Mr Rudd's plan to put the decision-making power regarding our hospitals into the hands of locals.

It also found 72 per cent wanted to see less "user-pays" health care and an increase in the proportion of government funding.

There will always be debates about the structure and delivery methods of our health system.

But we all know that we need more investment, more accountability, fewer bureaucrats and more doctors and nurses taking charge.

We need to end the state and federal blame game and this is what Labor's plan seeks to achieve.

Paul Howes is national secretary of the Australian Workers' Union