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Sickest, smallest to be hit hardest by Commonwealth cuts

The Federal Government has been warned that more people are likely to die because of an increasing shortfall of thousands of doctors, nurses and other health professionals in public hospitals as a result of Commonwealth cutbacks.

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler said the Abbott Government’s decision to reduce public hospital by $57 billion over 10 years would have a devastating effect on the State and Territory health systems.

“The AMA has warned of a perfect storm if funding is not increased,” A/Professor Owler said. “We already see hospitals struggling to achieve performance targets. We know that overcrowding, we know that delays in getting into a bed from the emergency department, is not just a matter of the headlines, it is matter of increased morbidity. People have more complications or are more likely to die if they spend more and more time in an emergency department.”

The AMA National Conference was told that in Queensland alone, the Federal Government’s decision to slash growth in public hospital funding from 2017 will rip $11.8 billion out of the State health system over 10 years, resulting in 1503 fewer doctors and 5319 fewer nurses being employed in the time.

A/Professor Owler said the outlook for the smaller states and territories, which had limited revenue-raising capacity, was particularly worrying.

“I really fear for those states, because we know that their economies are quite small. They don’t have the ability to make up the shortfall in revenue, and those states are going to be really badly affected,” he said.

Queensland Health Minister Cameron Dick told the AMA National Conference that the Commonwealth was shoving more of the burden of public hospital funding on to the states.

Mr Dick released modelling by his Department showing that the Commonwealth’s share of national efficient public hospital expenditure would peak at 35.5 per cent in 2016-17 before rapidly falling away to just 32.1 per cent by 2024-25 – virtually 10 percentage points below the level committed to in the 2011 National Health Reform Agreement.

“There will be greater pressure on the hospital system as a result,” the Queensland Minister said. “People will have to wait longer for surgery, people will have to wait longer for patient appointments. We will not be able to deliver the services we need. As the population gets older and costly medical technology increases, there will be a gap.”

AMA Tasmania President Dr Tim Greenaway described to the AMA National Conference how the Commonwealth funding cut would hit his State particularly hard.

Tasmania has the nation’s oldest, fattest, poorest and – by many measures – least healthy population, and Dr Greenaway warned the Federal Government’s policy would only make the situation worse.

Despite having greater health needs than most other states and territories, Tasmania’s spending on health care ($1275 per capita) is below the national average ($1735 per capita), and Dr Greenaway said the Commonwealth’s funding cuts would only “lock in” the State’s inadequate investment in health, “which will inevitably increase health disparity”.

The states and territories are furious the Federal Government has walked away from its commitments under the National Health Reform Agreement, and the issue is set to be near the top of the agenda when Prime Minister Tony Abbott meets with his State and Territory counterparts to discuss reform of the Federation at a leader’s retreat in July.

A/Professor Owler said the Federal Government’s decision was indefensible.

“It’s up to the Commonwealth to live up to its responsibility to make sure that all Australia’s get access to the services they deserve,” he said, adding that the squeeze on hospitals would also have a significant effect on doctor and nurse training.

A video of the Quality public hospital services: funding capacity for performance policy session can be viewed at: media/ama-national-conference-30-may-2015-session-1

Adrian Rollins