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Healthcare in crisis

By Ged Kearney - posted Thursday, 27 November 2008


The economy is sure to dominate this week’s COAG meeting and it is unlikely that any grand reform proposals will be announced. Speculation about a “horror” budget is already rife with Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner openly discussing the need to cut programs and reconsider reform agendas.

There is no doubt that Australia’s economy is in trouble as a result of the world financial crisis. While the world economy has collapsed quite dramatically and rapidly it can be argued that our health system has been on a somewhat slower road to ruin over recent years. More than a decade of under funding and a preoccupation with budget surpluses has seen a steady erosion of the system and increased strain on dwindling public health resources.

The Rudd Labor Government has acknowledged the crisis in health and committed to a reform process to address the systemic problems of a complex state and federal system of funding.

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Preventative health care has been identified as essential in stemming the growth in chronic diseases often caused by poor lifestyle choices and bad diets. Nurses and midwives, and indeed many people in the community, seemed cautiously optimistic about the future of health care following last year’s federal election. Health, education and industrial relations were undoubtedly three of the major issues which won Kevin Rudd the election.

So where will the commitment to health care reform be positioned this week at COAG in light of the financial crisis? Will we be told there is no longer enough money to seriously address the crisis gripping our health care system? It may not be good enough to insist on the need to abandon health care reform while spending hundreds of millions propping up the banking and financial sectors. There is no doubt that some of the problems in the health care system can be fixed by simplifying bureaucracy and funding mechanisms. But there is equally no doubt that the federal and state funding of health care needs a significant boost - financial crisis or no financial crisis.

Nurses and midwives are the largest single group of health care providers in Australia and are positioned on the frontline of delivering health care services to the public. Nurses are the first point of contact for people attending hospital emergency departments and deliver primary health care services through community health centres and GP clinics in increasing numbers. Nurses and midwives are sometimes the only health care professional available in a remote area of the country. Most nurses have remained committed to working with increased workloads and stress, but many have left the workforce disillusioned and exhausted.

We need more nurses and doctors and we need to seriously address issues of retention of our health care workforce.

One of the greatest areas of concern for the future of health care in Australia is in aged care.

Residential aged care operators claim they are not making enough money to operate high care beds. Some aged care peak bodies and residential care providers are now arguing for less regulation of the sector and for bonds to be introduced for high care residents.

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Nurses who work in aged care are aware of the need to improve the funding of the aged care sector but would not agree that further deregulation of the industry is the answer. It is ironic that at a time when economists are debating the need for more regulation in the financial sector that we are having an argument about deregulating the aged care sector.

We are not just talking about profits of providers here but the quality of health care services for some of our most vulnerable citizens. Health care has long been identified as a basic human right. The quality of health care provided to older Australian’s should not be worked out by the market place; nor should the Federal Government’s decisions on health care reform.

While not underestimating the need for a degree of caution in spending while in the midst of a financial crisis, our health care system cannot afford any more tightening. No amount of money can save you if you have a life threatening illness, but a well resourced health care system could have you back on your feet in no time.

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About the Author

Ged Kearney is the Federal Secretary for the Australian Nurses Federation. Ged began her nursing career in the private health sector in Melbourne in the 1980s. After completing her education, she moved to the public sector where she stayed for 15 years. She completed a Bachelor of Education and moved into the specialty area of Clinical Education at Austin Health. Support for newly graduated nurses, access to and development of re-entry and refresher courses for nurses to re-enter the workforce and professional development for nurses became her particular interest. Her education career culminated in her role as Manager of Clinical Education for Austin Health. Ged was during this time a very active member of the Australian Nursing Federation and in 1997 she became president of the Victorian Branch. Following a period as ANF Federal President she was elected as Assistant Federal Secretary, and in April this year she took up her current position as Federal Secretary. Ged continues to represent nurses on many and varied national and international forums which include being a director for HESTA Superannuation Industry Fund.

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All articles by Ged Kearney

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