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Nothing neat about lives put at risk

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Patient lives are being put at risk by cuts to a program that was working to reduce deaths among emergency department patients, AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis has warned.

As the pressure mounts on the major political parties to detail their plans for public hospital funding, Dr Parnis – who is an emergency physician – has called for both the Coalition and Labor to commit to specific Commonwealth funding for the National Emergency Access Target (NEAT).

His call follows the publication of a peer-reviewed study published in the Medical Journal of Australia that linked the NEAT with lower in-hospital mortality rates for emergency patients.

When NEAT was introduced, the goal was to ensure that, by 2015, 90 per cent of ED patients were to be admitted, discharged or transferred within four hours. This goal was supported by specific Commonwealth funding.

The MJA study found the policy was working, concluding that “as NEAT compliance rates increased, in-hospital mortality of emergency admissions declined”.

But the Abbott Government axed funding for the program in the 2014-15 Budget, and Dr Parnis said improvements in hospital performance had since stalled.

After improving every year since 2011-12, performance against the NEAT at the national level had “now plateaued, with no further improvements in 2014-15, with the likelihood that the situation could deteriorate as a result of the Budget cuts,” he said.

“A target that was working to improve performance has stopped delivering further improvements.”

The cut the NEAT fund was part of a broader Government policy to slash up to $57 billion from public hospital funding by the mid-2020s by disowning National Health Reform Agreement commitments and lowering the indexation of funding to inflation plus population growth.

The AMA has been highly critical of the massive funding cut, which has also drawn the ire of State and Territory governments.

In an effort to neutralise public hospitals as an election issue, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last month announced the Commonwealth would inject an extra $2.9 billion into the public hospital system over the next three years.

But Dr Parnis said that although the extra money was welcome, it was “clearly inadequate” in enabling hospitals to meet the needs of patients in the long term.

“The MJA article is further evidence that arbitrary public hospital funding cuts have real consequences for patient mortality,” he said.

Adrian Rollins