The fight to retain Mullumbimby Hospital’s emergency overnight doctor has intensified with Ballina MP and minister for the north coast Don Page pressed in parliament to stand by his recent comments that he didn’t support the contentious plan for a telehealth trial due to serious community concern.
MPs in both state and federal parliaments have turned the heat up recently on Mr Page and health minister Jillian Skinner, urging them to scrap the plan where the overnight doctor would be replaced by a teleconferencing video link operated by a nurse.
The six-month trial, initially with both a nurse and a supervising doctor on shift, is expected to start in October.
Mr Page earlier this month was accused by Richmond MP Justine Elliot in federal parliament of being ‘either unwilling or unable to to stand up and fight for the residents of the north coast’, while state opposition leader John Robertson and other MPs have asked why the trial was going ahead against the wishes of locals.
On Thursday in state parliament, Mr Page sidestepped an opposition question for him to repeat his comments made to a recent public rally against the removal of the overnight doctor.
His refusal to directly answer the question was seized on this week by NSW Upper House MP Walt Secord who said Mr Page had been ‘caught out’ saying to the community meeting that he opposed the video link ‘and the complete opposite’ in parliament.
Health minister Jillian Skinner, who was also questioned about the issue just before Mr Page, said she had spoken to Mr Page and given him ‘full information’ about the replacement of the doctor and he was ‘very happy with my explanation’.
Mr Secord told Echonetdaily that Mr Page was refusing to repeat his support for the community on the issue.
‘This is just another example of where you cannot trust the Nationals. They say one thing in regional areas and another in Sydney when they are sitting with their Liberal masters,’ Mr Secord said.
Falling in Mrs Elliot also joined the attack, saying, ‘earlier this month, Mr Page told residents he had concerns about the video link, but when asked directly, he fell in behind the health minister’s plan to replace a doctor with a video camera’.
But Mr Page has hit back, saying there was ‘no inconsistency in what I said in Mullum and in Parliament’.
‘In Mullum I said I had listened to community concerns and I could not support the trial until the issues were addressed. Chris Crawford said he would talk to nurses and clinicians re the concerns and report back. I am awaiting his report. This is totally consistent with what I said in Parliament.’
Both Labor MPs have called on Mr Page to again face the community ‘and explain his total change of position in Sydney’.
Ms Skinner told parliament the hospital faced ‘ongoing difficulties in rostering a permanent doctor at Mullumbimby, so there was a considerable amount of money being spent on locums’.
‘That was not a sensible way to go because Mullumbimby Hospital has, on average, one patient overnight. A locum doctor charges more than $100,000, but there is an alternative: this program that has been in place through Hunter New England hospitals for a long time. For example, in Macksville, one of the places I visited, the program is very successfully operating there, and it is also operating in southern NSW.
‘It is about connecting smaller hospitals with bigger hospitals where the expert clinicians are available so that they can give advice about whether a patient needs to be put in the back of an ambulance, whether a patient can be treated onsite or whether a patient can be referred off to a general practitioner – provided, of course, that general practitioners are available.’
In response to a question from opposition MP Michael Daley, Mr Page told parliament the proposed telehealth trial was ‘considered necessary because the hospital is unable to fill the medical roster with a doctor between the hours of 11pm and 7am’. He said that during the recent public meeting, local health district chief executive Chris Crawford undertook to work through community concerns with clinicians and with nurses.
’I understand that those discussions are ongoing and I look forward to hearing from the chief executive officer at the conclusion of those discussions,’ Mr Page concluded.