Lower Hunter hospital construction to start in 2018, public forum heard in Maitland

Construction of the new Lower Hunter hospital will begin by the end of next year.

Hunter New England Local Health District chief executive Michael Di Rienzo confirmed at a public forum on Monday night that construction of the long-awaited health facility would begin next year.

But he said a funding model was yet to be finalised, leaving the door open for a public-private partnership (PPP), and bed numbers were still unknown.

Mr Di Rienzo reiterated the existing Maitland Hospital would close, but not before the new facility was open. The forum, which attracted more than 200 people, heard the hospital would be two to three times the size of Maitland Hospital.

Mr Di Rienzo poured cold water on talk of changing the site from the Metford location that was identified in 2013.

He said, of the dozens of locations considered, Metford was “the best site by far”.

Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation executive director Andrew Holland said he believed ideology had driven the state government’s decision to call for expressions of interest for a partner from the private sector for the new hospital.

He said members of the union, which represents many doctors, were concerned about work conditions and the impact privatisation would have on the training of junior doctors.

"There is no evidence that [a public-private partnership] is value for money," he said. 

"Show us the evidence that what you're proposing will be to the benefit of the community."

Macquarie University economy and society senior lecturer Dr Ben Spies-Butcher told the forum that examples of PPPs in NSW showed the model was risky.

He used the example of the PPP at Port Macquarie hospital, which the Auditor General said the government paid for twice.

“Overwhelmingly the public system, for the same procedure, is cheaper,” he said. “Public systems are more efficient and more equitable. There are, at least, some big challenges in trying to incorporate private [sector].”

Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison also slammed the possible PPP, and said the community needed an asset that belonged to them.

“We need this hospital, we need it to be public, we need it to be the proper size and we need it now,” she said.