EDITORIAL: Spending on health services

HUNTER ambulance paramedics, represented by the Health Services Union, have traditionally made their voices heard when services to the region are threatened.

The latest point of difference between the ambulance paramedics and the state government relates to overtime.

The union says the 60,000 extra hours worked by Hunter paramedics last year shows the service is under-staffed and over-worked.

Figures obtained by the Newcastle Herald show that overtime accounts for more than one-fifth of the ambulance service’s salary bill. All up, Hunter paramedics earned more than $5million in overtime payments last year, which their union says is enough to employ another 50 paramedics.

The union says its members are so exhausted by the relentless calls to work extra hours that the Hunter service is sometimes running five ambulances short because of management’s inability to provide staff.

The government sees things differently.

It says rural areas that cannot justify 24-hour ambulance stations still need coverage, and that this is best provided by putting paramedics on stand-by and paying them penalty rates for call-outs.

Even so, the amount of overtime being worked in the Hunter ambulance service appears to be out of line with most other industries.

That management is apparently unable to recruit enough paramedics to do the lucrative Sunday night shifts is compelling evidence that more officers are needed.

Soon after taking office in March 2011, the Coalition government commissioned a review of the ambulance service, and a report from this exercise was unveiled on December 18 by Health Minister Jillian Skinner.

As a result, the government has promised to integrate the ambulance service within the broader health system, and to separate inter-hospital transfers from urgent medical retrievals to enable the service to concentrate on its core role of dealing with emergencies.

Even so, no organisational shake-up will work if staff levels or funding are insufficient.

In a similar vein, the government must ensure that airconditioning problems at Maitland Hospital are fixed, and quickly. In this week’s heatwave conditions, a hospital is the last place anyone would want an airconditioner to fail.

Maitland MP Robyn Parker was very upbeat last month about the $20million being set aside as planning money for a new Maitland hospital. In the meantime, the people of Maitland would be much better served if the airconditioners worked in the existing hospital.

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