An unyielding alliance was formed between residents of Mullumbimby, Coraki and Bonalbo when over one hundred protestors marched and gathered at Lismore Base Hospital on Saturday.
A very strong message was sent to the Lismore Base Hospital Board (LBHB) and the Northern NSW Local Health District (NNSWLHD) chief executive Chris Crawford, opposing closures and cutbacks to rural hospital services.
Campbell Hospital at Coraki remains closed since last October when rain damaged the roof; Bonalbo Hospital is now closed at night after the local doctor retired; and most recently Mullumbimby Hospital faces the replacement of its nighttime doctor with a video-conferencing link to the Tweed Hospital.
It was Page MP Janelle Saffin who recommended creating an alliance between the affected rural communities in order to be heard. She was there to address the resulting coalition.
‘One of the things that has appalled me most is the communications throughout these rural hospital cuts. There needs to be more consultation and community input.’
Ms Saffin went on to clarify that even though Mullumbimby is not in her area, she was standing in solidarity with those affected.
She continued ‘although this is a state issue, I have been a health advocate much longer than I have been in politics, and I am a member of the community. So I stand in support of that.’
In Byron Shire the long-term plan is for the services at Byron and Mullumbimby hospitals to be amalgamated as part of a larger hospital to be built at Ewingsdale. But in the meantime, the overnight doctor has been withdrawn from Mullumbimby Hospital in favour of a video link-up to the Tweed Hospital. Both the doctors and the nurses at the hospital oppose this on the grounds of patient care.
Dr Liz Elliott, a GP from Mullumbimby Hospital, shared her frustration at the rally. ‘This is a service, it’s something the community needs and loves and is a great employer of our local people.
‘There is too much focus on centralisation, too much administration, too many meetings, and a dreadful multi-million dollar IT system that we all hate. A doctor like me is paid $10 an hour to be on call. So after a while there are not many wanting to do it, especially at 2am. So then what do they do? Get a bunch of young kids in, who are great at what they do, who get $1,300 a night. Well that does get expensive.’
Byron deputy mayor Basil Cameron told the crowd that ‘the community do not know when the amalgamation is going to happen. There is no timeframe and no guarantee of what services we will receive in the future. I believe there should be better community representation on the board.
‘We know we have a growing population. We are also affected by large amounts of people travelling to the area. And now we have additional pressure from more large festivals in the Shire. These events put demands on services and Mullumbimby Hospital picks up the overflow.’
Residents of Bonalbo are applying pressure to Chris Crawford to commit to the contingency plan put in place for their hospital, as a result of the retirement of Dr Tierney at the end of 2011.
‘While a new GP and medical officer was being sought, part of the contingency plan was to run the Emergency Department (ED) 24 hours a day, run by Front Line Emergency Care (FLEC) nurses and during the day we would have visiting locum doctors. We are here to show our objection to that service being closed without any consultation,’ Jenny Clarke of Bonalbo told Echonetdaily.
Mayor of Kyogle Council, Ross Brown, compared what happened to their train service with the future of their hospital.
‘They got rid of our train service by changing the time that people could catch the train so nobody could use it. That then gives them the excuse to close it. Bonalbo hospital was closed in the middle of the night and they say that people didn’t use it. That’s when people use a hospital. Don’t tell me it isn’t orchestrated.
‘There is one ambulance that may not come, and if it does it will have to take a patient two hours to Lismore. Casino hospital forwards the patient on as sometimes they, too, don’t have a doctor on call at night. The same for other areas like Drake. Now imagine having a heart attack or stroke and being faced with that drive. It’s not good enough.’
There have been previous attempts over the years to close the Coraki Campbell Hospital but the Save Coraki Hospital Committee (SCHC) managed to keep it open through protesting and lobbying. However, the service has been closed since October 2011 because of a leaking roof.
‘A storm damaged the hospital roof. It’s not being fixed even though they have the finance to do it,’ Narelle Jarvis, secretary of SCHC, told Echonetdaily.
Mayor of Richmond Valley Council, Col Sullivan, declared, ‘the NNSWLHD is obviously not looking at planning for the future as there are statistics available that show, with population growth in the northern rivers, we will need every one of these hospitals.’
Mayor of Lismore Council, Jenny Dowell, gracefully removed her heels so she could join the other speakers who had stood on the grated steel bench-seat.
Jenny reminded us that ‘Indigenous Australians looked after people’s health for tens of thousands of years, but more importantly, communicated effectively well before even the NNSWLHD came here!’
‘Your whole community suffers when proper health services are downgraded or removed. I personally know of a business that may not set up in one of these affected areas as they cannot compromise the safety of workers.’
The NSW state government is approving the development of industries that depend on local health services. For example, festival and mining industries increase populations in rural areas. Opinions aside, these industries need access to proper health services for staff and clients. There is no justification for the state to increase demands on rural health services only to downgrade or take them away.
The campaign to save Mullumbimby Hospital has already attracted up to 3,000 signatures. A meeting is to be held in Mullumbimby on Monday, June 18. For more information contact [email protected]