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Issue #1851      December 5, 2018

Privatisation nightmare

The new Northern Beaches Hospital in Sydney was to be a model for privately run public hospitals. Since it first opened its doors to patients the hospital has been a shambles – a brutal lesson for anyone attempting to defend privatisation.

Northern Beaches Hospital in Sydney.

The hospital, run by Healthscope, might boast ocean views, but it is chronically understaffed and under-resourced. The NSW government spent $600 million on the construction of the new of the “state-of-the-art” facilities and has allocated another $400 million for work on roads in the area.

Healthscope is being paid $1.14 billion over 20 years to run hospital.

In what can only be described as the Americanisation of the health system, Healthscope is out to make the maximum profits possible with short-cuts across the board.

“It is just being done on the cheap. The dollar is the primary motivator and it is inevitable that patient care will be compromised, Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation president Tony Sara said.

Profits first

Privately run, for-profit hospitals have one aim – maximising profits. Health care is not their prime purpose, it is a vehicle for profit-generation. In fact, companies are obliged by corporations law to put their share holders first. That means patients last.

Numerous reports from staff claim the hospital lacks adequate supplies of vital medications and other products such as insulin, adrenaline, dialysis fluids, heart failure medications, syringes, IV lines, saline bags, needles, swabs, and a host of other basics. Computers allegedly had blank screens, blood tests were sent to the wrong laboratory and even taxi drivers are complaining about signage problems trying to get to the emergency department on unfinished roads.

Staff have reported that there were only six wheelchairs to cater for a 488-bed hospital.

A litany of organisational problems has been reported. These include a card-reader to open security doors being mislabelled, lack of protocols for emergencies, staffing issues and ill-equipped resuscitation trolleys.

One woman, who required an emergency caesarian delivery, is lucky to be alive following a hold-up of one hour due to the chaos as staff tried desperately to source blood and find the equipment they needed.

Elective was cancelled because of serious staff shortages. None of this seemed to register with the NSW Health Minister and Premier who attempted to write off such unacceptable conditions as “a glitch”, “hiccups” or “teething challenges”, at the official opening on November 19.

Hours later the Medical Staff Council called a crisis meeting over concerns for patient and staff safety. It issued a statement supporting trainee doctors. One intern was reportedly allocated 60 patients and a doctor reported working 110 hours in one week.

The hospital’s CEO resigned just days after its opening, pre-empting a vote of no-confidence by senior staff. A senior anesthetist has since resigned. There may yet be industrial action if urgent measures are not taken to ensure conditions are safe for patients and staff.

It now appears that the hospital is now working with the Medical Staff Council and government to try to address some of the issues. It remains to be seen how much progress they can make.

Staff are angry and stressed. Some of the nurses were forcibly redeployed to the new hospital from the Manly hospital which closed when the Northern Beaches Hospital opened.

Public-private debacles

South Australians may well remember another of Healthscope’s forays into running a public hospital. It won the contract to manage the Modbury Hospital, a public hospital in Adelaide. It was also supposed to build a co-located private hospital on the site.

The co-located hospital was never built. As for the contract to run the privatised public hospital, that proved to be a disaster when profit became the driving force and the public purse was repeatedly used to make extra payments to the company.

There was a huge public campaign against the privatisation of Modbury, likewise the Northern Beaches Hospital. There is strong support for hospitals being public.

Eventually the Modbury Hospital was returned to public management, but only after considerable damage had been done.

In another public-private partnership, NSW contracted Health Care of Australia (parent Mayne Nickless) to run the new Port Macquarie Base Hospital 24 years ago.

Nurses and other staff were shocked by the emphasis given to keeping shareholders happy. They were under the impression that patient care was their priority!

Cost-cutting went to the point of plans to replace all registered nurses by Assistants in Nursing. Eventually things reached a point with staff and public protests, and mounting complaints that the hospital was also returned to public hands.

It is incredible after such debacles that the government is yet again attempting to contract out a major hospital to the private, for-profit sector. Such hospitals cannot provide the quality care that public hospitals do, and they cannot do it as cheaply and efficiently because of the layers of profit built into the system.

At present lives are at risk. The Communist Party of Australia is calling for the auditor-general to immediately intervene, investigate and make public the hospital’s shambolic performance, kick Healthscope out for failing to honour its contract and hand it back to the public sector.

Next article – Editorial – Governments fail to act on domestic violence

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