‘Developing country situation’: Top doctor sounds alarm as minister apologises

The head of the country’s top doctors’ group says Australians should be banging on the doors of politicians demanding action to improve deteriorating conditions inside hospitals, which he warns is increasingly becoming akin to situations faced by developing countries.

The comments from the recently appointed national president of the Australian Medical Association came on the same day a Victorian minister was forced to apologise for telling patients of the state’s struggling health system to “roll with the punches” after revelations a brain tumour patient travelled to Adelaide for an urgent MRI scan.

Later on Wednesday, Victorian Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas defended the state’s health funding as sufficient funding following a report by this masthead that showed soaring inflation and a reduction in one-off funding for COVID-related initiatives could see Victoria’s health budget reduced by more than 13 per cent in real terms this financial year.

The new AMA boss, Professor Steve Robson, said the community would not accept falling standards in public hospitals.

“We can’t have a community in a developed, high-income country like Australia continue to have these developing country situations in hospitals,” Robson said.

“Every family with someone on a waiting list, people who are waiting years for an operation, or who have been left waiting for care should be at the office of their state and federal local member knocking on their door saying ‘why aren’t you doing something about this?’

”This is just so monumentally big that we need all the players to sit down, not just premiers and the health ministers, but [the] prime minister, those who work in veterans affairs, people who do community housing and at-home-care.”

The Victorian Healthcare Association, which represents public hospitals, said on Tuesday the withdrawal of billions of dollars in emergency COVID funding, coupled with a spike in inflation has left the state’s severely stretched health system facing a dramatic drop in funding, and doctors are warning of worse outcomes for patients at a time of continued record-breaking demand.

After factoring in the impact of rising prices, the shortfall is far larger. The Reserve Bank is predicting inflation will be 6.2 per cent over the year to June 2023, leaving the health system facing a precipitous 13.7 per cent cut to real funding this financial year.

However, on Wednesday, Victorian Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas rejected this and said she was confident the state’s health system has sufficient funding and claimed the money made available to Victoria healthcare services had increased by 7 per cent.

New AMA chief Steve Robson has swung his support behind an independent agency to take the politics out of future responses to infectious disease.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“I’m confident that we are continuing to provide the funding that our healthcare services need to deliver the very best patient care to all Victorians,” she said.

In the 2021-22 budget, handed down just before the start of the financial year, the government predicted it would spend $23.39 billion on health services.

However, in reality, the prediction was wrong. Actual spending for 2021-22 turned out to be a lot higher, at $27.06 billion. This year’s budget set aside $25.02 billion, which is 7.5 per cent less than last financial year.

Although Thomas said health spending had risen by 7 per cent, that represents the difference between this year’s budget prediction and the amount it originally expected to spend in last year’s budget.

Thomas’ denial that soaring inflation would hurt funding, came after Education Minister Natalie Hutchins apologised for comments she made at a press conference after a Melbourne woman was forced to make a round trip to Adelaide for an urgent medical procedure.

As first reported in the Herald Sun, mother of two Kylie Hennessy, who needed the scan ahead of surgery on a brain tumour, travelled to Adelaide last week after being told she faced a months-long wait for a “functional MRI” scan in Melbourne.

Asked about Hennessy’s plight, Hutchins said she did not know the details of the case, but from her own personal experience watching her late husband seek his own cancer treatment that “sometimes you just got to roll with the punches of what’s going on”.

Hutchins has since apologised in a series of tweets. She said the comment was a reflection of her own personal experience of nursing her late husband through cancer and treatment.

“Having been through the pain and uncertainty of fighting cancer with my late husband, Steve, I know how distressing and anxious this time is for the Hennessy family,” she tweeted. “I understand this may have caused some distress, and I am sorry that this has happened.”

Debate about the state of Victoria’s health system continues while the coroner attempts to determine whether any of the 33 Victorians who died while waiting for ambulances could have survived if their triple-zero call was answered in time. The deaths were revealed earlier this month in a long-awaited report into problems at the state’s triple-zero call centre between December 2020 and May 2022.

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