There was plenty of passion in the room during a public forum about the future of Maitland Hospital on Monday night.
Representatives from health workers’ unions joined Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison (pictured), Hunter New England Health chief executive Michael Di Rienzo and senior economics lecturer from Macquarie University Dr Ben Spies-Butcher to make their views clear about plans for the new Lower Hunter hospital and answer questions from the 200-plus community members who attended the meeting. While some of the most pressing issues remain up in the air, a few things were made clear.
Firstly, construction of the hospital will begin before the end of next year. That’s obviously a positive revelation – the sooner work starts, the sooner the first patient can be treated there.
Secondly, the existing Maitland Hospital will close – but not before the new facility is up and running. So, at no point will Maitland be without a hospital.
Thirdly, Mr Di Rienzo said the new hospital would be two-to-three times the size of Maitland Hospital – which should give piece of mind that we are not going to be left with a smaller facility for the region’s rapidly growing population.
And finally, unless new Health Minister Brad Hazzard is looking for an excuse to stall the project, the hospital site is unlikely to change – Mr Di Rienzo said the former brick works site at Metford was “the best site by far” of the 35 locations considered.
So, what next? Obviously, the government has to look at the expressions of interest it has received from the private sector and work out whether it will pursue a public-private partnership (PPP) or make the hospital a fully public facility.
The case against inviting the private sector to run our new hospital was only made stronger at the forum on at least two fronts.
Dr Spies-Butcher presented research that showed private involvement in healthcare overwhelmingly made services more expensive and less equitable. He said the government had to make sure any contract for the hospital was "water tight” to ensure we end up with the facility we expect. He is spot on when he says this is a risky play.
Meanwhile, Andrew Holland, executive director of the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation, said he feared that training for junior doctors would be undermined if a PPP was employed – something that would ultimately be a loss to us all.