The promise to fix regional health services was one of the issues that helped bring Labor to power in Victoria 11 years ago, but the annual reports of regional health providers show that problems are re-emerging, with several services struggling financially, with ageing buildings or lack of staff.

The state Government made rural health a headline issue in the last budget, with $473 million committed towards the Bendigo Hospital project — the single biggest investment by any government towards a regional hospital in Victoria’s history, according to Treasurer John Lenders. Money was also allocated for a second hospital in Geelong, and for a cancer centre in Ballarat, as well as other projects

But the Brumby Dump exercise, in which Swinburne University journalism students surveyed the annual reports of regional hospitals, suggests there is another story to be told.

In Echuca, the regional health service reported it was struggling with old, inefficient buildings, after expected funding for rebuilding had not been approved. Echuca Regional Health services areas as far as 70 kilometres away, and is an important centre for rural health care.

The hospital’s annual report states that the board expected funding for the rebuild to be allocated in the May 2010 budget, but were told shortly before it was released that “designs, plans and detailed costings” reports were required to secure the funds.

This was despite of the fact that a master plan was approved by the Department of Health in October 2009.

Mayor Peter Williams, who is also a member of the hospital board, said that they are “in the last stages” of the government’s processes to get funding, but locals will not be satisfied until they can see more progress.

“We are in a very safe conservative seat here, and Echuca Regional Health has been bumped in the past by other projects, and the community is concerned this will happen again” Williams said.

“We know, the government knows, the community knows that we need a new hospital.”

More than 4500 local residents have contacted the Victorian Health Minister’s office, many following a local newspaper ad paid for by locals encouraging others to badger the Minister, and claiming that the hospital is “buggered”.

According to the master plan information brochure, the growing population of the Echuca region is still being forced to make do with a hospital that is “old, structurally inefficient and not big enough”.

On one ward, the location of the bathrooms means patients have to be helped through a busy corridor every time they need to use the toilet.

According to the annual report, between Christmas Eve and January 2 this year, the emergency department saw 756 patients, with only seven emergency treatment cubicles available. The main wing of the hospital has barely changed since the 1960s.

Elsewhere, the 2009/10 annual reports for Omeo, Koo Wee Rup, Foster and Seymour health services say that they are struggling in different ways.

Koo Wee Rup hospital was forced  to train its own staff for specialist positions because of a shortage of health-care professionals.

The attending physiotherapist and occupational health and safety consultant had to “undertake sessions on manual handling and injury prevention” run by volunteers. The hospital reported that help was still needed in the early parenting unit, where the hospital currently asks expert speakers to fill in the gaps of knowledge not covered by the staff. Meanwhile, an occupational therapist was finally appointed in 2009 after a two-year wait, but the hospital says that “due to the difficulty in obtaining the services of a podiatrist” they have had to train staff in that area.

Meanwhile, the South Gippsland Hospital reported that it was in an unsustainable financial position, and using reserve savings to get by. The hospital’s annual report said that budgeted targets had not been met due to a reduction in private patient fees, reduced investment income and a blow out in medical and surgical supplies costs.

The chief executive of the hospital, Edward Street, reported that the hospital was “in an unsustainable position to be moving forward”.

But the president of the board of management, Meg Knight, said that the hospital is “not going to close, nobody is going to lose their job, we don’t need a cash injection” and that it is “just a couple of one off things” that has contributed to the downfall.

Despite the financial instability, the hospital had received several capital grants for a refurbishment, the hospital auxiliary raised more than $41,000 for a new foetal heart monitor, and the urgent care department is increasing by one bed.

Knight said  “we had a deficit in the budget last year and there is another deficit budget this year, but we will be back in the black by 2011/12”.

In Seymour, the District Memorial Hospital recorded a $936,000 deficit following an even heavier deficit of $1,194,000 in 2008/09. The turnaround from big deficit to a smaller one was due, according to Elizabeth Petroy, the director of financial services, to the successful implementation of a financial recovery action plan.

The hospital also had an increase in emergency admissions from 6304 to 6896 following a $200,000 upgrade to its casualty department.

Meanwhile, in Omeo, the locally important fund-raising group SHINE has gone into recess because of lack of support. SHINE has raised between $20,000 and $30,000 for important medical equipment.

All this at a time when, as reported last week, research commissioned by Crikey shows Victorian voters in rural and regional electorates regarded health services as a key concern.

Peter Fray

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