EXPOSE: Health system `going well'


Health hasn't received a great deal of political attention this election, but it remains one of the most important issues to voters. In the lead up to March 15, JODIE STEPHENS talks to Health Minister Michelle O'Byrne and opposition health spokesman Jeremy Rockliff about their pledges, priorities, and plans for the health budget.

HEALTH Minister Michelle O'Byrne thinks Labor's budget cuts helped rein in excessive spending within the health system.

She rejects regular claims of crisis, saying the system has had its challenges, but is now going well.

Ms O'Byrne, who wants to remain health minister if re-elected, said the next step was to figure out the best ways to deliver services within the budget.

Labor has so far pledged additional money for elective surgery, a new hospital at St Helens, funding to child and adolescent mental health services, funding to improve health literacy, and a commitment to introduce a state policy guiding the inclusion healthy places and spaces within new infrastructure.

Labor's elective surgery pledge would not see money go directly towards more surgeries, as the Liberals' policy does, but commits $10 million to help patients who choose to travel to an alternative hospital with a shorter waiting time.

Political scientist Richard Eccleston said it wasn't clear if the policy would offer anything more than short-term benefits, and independent health analyst Martyn Goddard said it would achieve little when every hospital was struggling to manage waiting lists. However, Ms O'Byrne said it was a trial to see if Tasmanians would travel for surgery if it meant a shorter waiting time, and whether a statewide waiting list was manageable.

"What we're trying to model, and it is a bit of a test, is if we had an additional bucket of money that people could choose to go to other parts of the state - could we get a better throughput in terms of elective surgery waiting times," she said.

Ms O'Byrne said she still didn't see the need for a hospice in the North, repeating earlier statements that palliative care was moving to a hospice without walls model.

"A hospice is essentially setting up an all-new hospital. They're very costly to run," she said.

Asked about comments from Tasmania Medicare local chief executive Phil Edmondson, Dr Eccleston and Mr Goddard that the health system needed significant reform to be sustainable, Ms O'Byrne said reform was under way. "It has been completely changed in the last four years with national health reform, and in Tasmania we're progressing the second iteration of that, which is a much better connectivity with primary care," she said.

Ms O'Byrne said she wanted to trial a single-funder model for acute care, but she had not had luck in gaining federal support.

"I think what would actually work for a single-funding model, the model that we put to the Australian government, is that we actually set up a body that we both fund, and that body then does the delivery of health services in a holistic way."

She said there would be no more significant cuts under a re- elected Labor government.

Elective surgery funds vital: Libs

OPPOSITION health spokesman Jeremy Rockliff says the state's health system is in crisis.

Mr Rockliff believes Tasmania hasn't recovered from Labor's budget cuts, and won't unless the Liberals invest in elective surgery again.

It's the party's first priority, in a health policy focused on returning things previously cut from health - frontline staff, Hospital in the Home, surgical beds, school nurses, and possibly a Northern hospice.

Mr Rockliff said the Liberals would put $76 million into elective surgery, with $27 million going to the North.

He said they would also separate the two streams of surgery - elective and emergency - to prevent elective surgery cancellations in the North and South of the state.

Mr Rockliff said he would consult with clinicians to determine which patients would get priority for the additional elective surgeries, how the separate streaming would work and when it would be introduced.

"We set the policy position and that's where our funding is into elective surgery, and it's up to clinicians in terms of how best that funding can be utilised to get those waiting lists down," Mr Rockliff said.

Like Labor's, the Liberals' elective surgery plan has been dismissed by independent health analyst Martyn Goddard and political scientist Richard Eccleston, who said it would only offer short-term relief.

Mr Goddard and Dr Eccleston, along with Tasmania Medicare Local chief executive Phil Edmondson, have all called for significant reform to ensure health does not consume the state budget.

Mr Rockliff said sensible decisions were needed.

"The sensible decision in health would be to recognise that you've got a problem at your acute care level, and to ensure that you will manage it more effectively, and you will invest in it so you are able to manage it more effectively," Mr Rockliff said.

He said the Liberals planned to introduce three-year budgets for the Tasmanian Health Organisations, to give them greater financial certainty.

Mr Rockliff said there were no plans to invest in specific preventative health programs, but he was interested in setting up an apolitical body that would attract government and corporate funding, and ensure it was delivered to the right prevention initiatives.

He said that while he did not support a financial takeover of health, he was open to other single- funder models.

Mr Rockliff said a strong argument by Friends of the Northern Hospice had convinced him to back a $100,000 feasibility study into a Launceston hospice.

He said he would like to see a hospice in the North.

"I think it's a very sensitive matter, that the patient and their family deserve, where possible, to have options," Mr Rockliff said.

Mr Rockliff said he was proud of the Liberals' mental health and suicide prevention policy, which Mental Health Council Tasmania chief executive Darren Carr said was the most comprehensive offered in the lead-up to the election.He would not say whether the Liberals would match Labor's commitment to rebuild St Helens hospital, but said he would have more to say on that before the election.


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