Karlis Salna, AAP
The nation’s peak medical group has warned a massive shortfall in federal funding for hospitals will lead to even longer waiting times for elective surgery, prompting higher morbidity rates, with the smaller states and regional Australia worst hit.
In its annual report card on the hospital system, the Australian Medical Association has delivered a worrying prognosis, warning successive cuts had left the states and territories facing ‘a huge black hole’ in funding.
AMA president Brian Owler warns unless this is addressed, there will be greater inequality across the country as larger economies like NSW and Victoria find ways to make up the shortfall and others such as South Australia and Tasmania struggle to meet the gap.
‘This is probably one of the biggest fears that I have,’ associate professor Owler told reporters in Sydney on Thursday.
‘We are going to see greater inequity and it will depend on which state and territory you live in.’
Under changes to be introduced by the Abbott government, more than $50 billion will be stripped from hospital funding from 2017, on top of billions of cuts in last year’s budget.
The AMA has called for the issue to be dealt with as a priority in discussions between prime minister Tony Abbott and state and territory leaders in Canberra on Friday.
South Australian Labor Premier Jay Weatherill has labelled the cuts massively unfair.
But federal health minister Sussan Ley, who will meet with state and territory counterparts in Sydney on Friday, rejected the criticism, arguing the funding deal reached under the former Labor government was unsustainable.
‘It was based on a different funding premise that in itself tended to inflate costs but on top of that, Labor simply said “here are your funding guarantees, states, and you will get this money any way.”’
The AMA report shows waiting times for elective procedures (surgery that can wait more than 24 hours) had not improved at all in the past four years, with patients waiting an average of 36 days.
Deeper analysis also shows emergency departments across the country are taking on a greater burden, with a 7.2 per cent jump in the number of people presenting.
Associate professor Owler says unless waiting times improve, procedures that would otherwise be deemed ‘elective’, would be more likely to be life threatening, affecting people waiting for a heart by-pass or a child needing an operation for a congenital heart defect.
‘All this adds to the rate of poorer outcomes. It adds to the rate of other morbidities and other co-morbidities that people experience,’ he said.
There was improvement in some states in terms of emergency department waiting times, but no state or territory met the target of seeing 80 per cent of patients within clinically recommended triage times.
The report also points out that bed capacity numbers are not keeping pace with population growth.
Associate professor Owler said the government had retreated from its funding responsibilities despite public hospital funding looming as the biggest single challenge facing state and territory finances for the foreseeable future.