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"Crisis" struck southern mental health services under review

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South Australia’s Chief Psychiatrist John Brayley is reviewing under-fire mental health services in southern Adelaide after concerns were raised at the top level in the State Government.

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InDaily reported yesterday that staff in the area were outraged when they received an email from an SA Health financial manager congratulating them on saving more than $400,000 through not filling staff vacancies or downgrading positions.

While SA Health has distanced itself from the email, the contents appeared to support long-standing concerns by the Public Service Association and the nurses’ union about staffing of mental health services in the Southern Area Local Health Network (SALHN).

InDaily is also aware of claims by clinicians that the services are chronically understaffed – one of the key problems that marked the disaster at the Oakden Older Persons Mental Health facility, which was shut down after a damning report from previous Chief Psychiatrist Aaron Groves.

In response to questions from InDaily today, a spokesperson for Wade said the minister and Brayley had discussed concerns about how the SALHN mental health services were operating.

“A range of concerns about SALHN mental health services have been raised with the Minister,” the spokesperson said.

“He has discussed them with the Chief Psychiatrist who is undertaking a review and will report back to him in due course.”

Brayley, appointed earlier in the year, said in June that he was instituting a process of surprise visits to mental health facilities as well as reviewing all mental health services and their funding across the state.

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.

These documented concerns about SALHN meant that the contents of a leaked email, revealed yesterday, were particularly concerning to staff.

In the email, which contained an attached spreadsheet, a financial manager for mental health services in SALHN 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. “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 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”.

InDaily asked SA Health whether SALHN had a policy of using vacancies in order to meet savings targets.

In response, SALHN said: “Patient care is our priority, and while SALHN has savings efficiencies to meet, this year we employed more than 40 additional full-time staff within our mental health services compared to the same time last year.”

SA Health says the “unauthorised email does not accurately reflect SALHN’s position on how we manage vacancies, particularly for clinical roles”.

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