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Leaked email: SA Health congratulates staff on failing to fill mental health vacancies

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An SA Health manager has congratulated colleagues on failing to fill vacant positions in a southern area mental health service which has been described as being in crisis due to staff shortages.

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In a leaked email obtained by InDaily, a financial manager offers staff “congratulations on achieving a good result in excess of an estimated $426K in vacancy savings for 2017-18”.

“Your assistance is again needed to update the savings register for vacancy management savings,” says the email, dated August 29, 2018, from Tim Magor, Senior Business Manager – Mental Health Services, for the Southern Adelaide Local Health Network.

“This again forms part of the Financial Recovery plan for 1819 with a target amount of $630K required which has now been reduced to $500K following July updates.”

A table attached to the email shows “savings” in relation to a mix of clinical and administrative positions, including nurses and allied health professionals. The table shows savings made by staff being seconded to other areas and their position not being backfilled, reduced hours for some positions, positions being backfilled at lower classifications, and vacancies simply not being filled.

The email also says that “savings related to temporary bed closures will be documented and recorded in a separate process”.

The email has prompted outrage among staff, given that mental health services in the southern area have been under well-documented pressure.

Unions have been in formal dispute over staff shortages in the services, with nurses complaining to SA Health management in June about convoluted processes to fill vacant positions and the Public Service Association raising suspicions that same month that positions were not being filled as a strategy to meet savings targets.

SA Health today distanced itself from the congratulatory message, insisting the “unauthorised email does not accurately reflect SALHN’s position on how we manage vacancies, particularly for clinical roles”.

In July, InDaily reported that the nurses’ union had instituted work bans in response to what it says is an ongoing workload crisis for both youth and adult mental health services in the southern area.

The PSA also expressed concern about “unsafe and unsustainable workloads” in SALHN mental health services.

In addition, the Coroner has raised concerns about the adequacy of clinical staffing in mental health services in South Australia.

SA Health told InDaily in a statement today that it considered “consumer care” when addressing vacancies.

“While SALHN has savings efficiencies to meet, vacancies and backfilling of staff takes place in accordance with consumer care and service delivery needs, as well as with State Government policy,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

“We are continuing to work through significant Community Mental Health reforms in consultation with staff and stakeholders, including the development of a new Model of Care and a supporting Service Delivery and Workforce plan.”

SA Health would not comment when asked whether Magor had been counselled or disciplined over the email, citing staff privacy.

The PSA says it is “appalled” by the email and “disgusted” at the potential risk to client care by not filling roles.

An email to PSA members authorised by general secretary Nev Kitchin says “workloads are at crisis point within many SALHN MH (mental health) teams, with Inner South Community Mental Health (ISCMH) and Outer South CMH (OSCMH) both subject to formal PSA Workload Disputes under the Enterprise Agreement”.

“The PSA wrote to the SALHN Chief Executive Officer (CEO) as recently as 19 June 2018 to notify formally of the ISCMH Workload Dispute,” the email says. “In that letter we advised that members were suspicious that vacancies were not being filled as a savings strategy. SALHN did not respond to that statement.

“Members across SALHN MH describe workloads being the worst that they have experienced, with one of the major contributing factors being vacancies not being filled/backfilled or extremely delayed vacancy/backfill processes. The lack of filling of any role, including Executive/management roles, leads to a ‘snowball’ effect with continuing additional duties filtering down to all levels. Members report constant concern regarding the care for their clients, amongst the most vulnerable South Australians, yet SALHN believe this strategy deserves congratulations.”

The PSA says the union raised the issue with SALHN mental health management, which advised the email “was not authorised by SALHN and not necessarily the views of SALHN”.

However, “the fact remains that an active savings strategy for the 2017-18 financial year appears to have been to not fill roles. Despite these assertions, if it has been a strategy for so long SALHN must have supported it.”

According to a letter sent by Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation SA CEO Elizabeth Dabars to SALHN management in June, there have been regular failures to backfill staff on leave in a southern mental health service, and that “members assert that they are no longer able to take on extra clients/caseloads to support their colleagues away on leave, as they themselves are at capacity”.

“(There) are often gaps and unfilled shifts on the roster even before the roster has commenced,” the letter says.

“Recruitment to vacant positions takes several weeks … with management reporting six or seven steps to the recruitment process.

“It is known for several weeks when staff are being seconded to temporary positions, however, the position is not filled for weeks after they leave.”

In last week’s budget, the State Government announced it would cut 10 per cent of staff from SA Health’s head office, insisting that its axe would avoid frontline services.

For help talk to a medical practitioner or call the SANE Australia Helpline on 1800 187 263 or Lifeline on 13 11 14 (24 Hrs).

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