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Unions digging in to fight hospital job cuts

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Unions representing South Australia’s doctors and nurses are preparing to take SA Health to the Employment Tribunal over its plans for redundancies among central Adelaide hospital staff.

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Yesterday, SA Health announced it would offer voluntary separation packages to staff at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, among other health public health services across central Adelaide.

The doctors union (SASMOA) and the nurses union (the ANMF) have told InDaily they are lodging formal disputes with the Central Adelaide Local Health Network – which runs the RAH and QEH – and the Women’s and Children’s Health Network over the announcement.

They argue that management is required by enterprise agreements to consult doctors and nurses, and their unions, on major changes such as yesterday’s announcement – and that both staff and unions were blindsided.

They also warn that hospitals are already short of staff and need more clinicians, rather than fewer.

But Health Minister Stephen Wade said that each hospital’s managers would only accept applications for voluntary redundancies where they could safely afford to lose a staff member.

“No doctor or nurse will be eligible for a voluntary separation package if their position is needed within the hospitals,” he said.

“Patient care will remain our first priority.”

And he expects more doctors and nurses will employed in preventative and community healthcare, outside of hospitals, over the long term.

Figures in the Marshall Government’s last state budget show SA Health plans to employ 1140 fewer full-time equivalent staff members in 2019-20 than in it did in the last financial year.

SASMOA senior industrial officer Bernadette Mulholland told InDaily this morning that the major hospitals in central Adelaide – especially the Women’s and Children’s Hospital – were already understaffed.

But she said many doctors working within those institutions have been frustrated by years of crises, including escalating emergency department ramping and overcrowding, were likely to take up the voluntary separation packages and move interstate.

She said this would only make hospitals less safe and make the crises worse.

Meanwhile, the Labor Opposition is distributing a text message, which it says was sent to all off-duty Women’s and Children’s Hospital staff last week, warning that there were “severe shortfalls in all areas tonight WABS (Women’s and Babies Service) and PAEDS (Paediatrics)”.

“If you can help in any way please call 8161 6558 (the Women’s and Children’s after hours support line),” the message reads.

Opposition Health spokesperson Chris Picton said in a statement that the Women’s and Children’s Hospital was “already under extreme pressure”.

“Only one-third of mothers and children presenting to the hospital needing urgent medical attention are being treated on time (and) management is pleading with off-duty staff to fill-in,” he said.

“In this environment, why on earth would the Marshall Liberal Government consider cutting jobs?”

ANMF state secretary Elizabeth Dabars told InDaily the nurses union was “completely appalled” by yesterday’s announcement, and was preparing to fight it.

“There was absolutely no prior consultation or discussion,” she said.

SASMOA and the ANMF are demanding the local health networks withdraw the voluntary separation package offer and consult with unions and staff first.

Failing that, they say the dispute will escalate to SA Health and, if the department declines to withdraw, the South Australian Employment Tribunal.

“They (SA Health management) are supposed to sit down and talk to not only the unions but the people the unions look after,” said Mulholland.

“We don’t have sufficient medical staff at the front line as we speak.”

Wade described the ANMF as one of “Labor’s political allies” and pointed out that the union had “accepted the (voluntary separation package) process for SA Pathology”

“That process has been successful and we hope they will support their members to engage in the CALHN and WCHN process,” he said.

Speaking on ABC Radio Adelaide this morning, Wade said there were “no targets” for job cuts in Health – only “estimates” in the last state budget – and that more doctors and nurses were being employed in other areas.

He conceded that ambulance ramping – where emergency departments are too full to take new patients, so ambulances have to wait outside – had become worse during the past year than it had been during the former Weatherill Government’s tenure.

However, he blamed the fallout from the former Government’s Transforming Health hospital reforms process for the escalating problem and said the local health networks made the decision to offer voluntary separation packages.

“These are decisions of the local health networks,” Wade told the radio program.

“The Government supports them in doing that.

“We are not going to give a voluntary separation package (that would leave) a hole in our services.”

He said he expected conditions in public hospital to improve later this year.

Wade emphasised that because the Government had reduced the use of agency contract nurses – which cost about 40 per cent more than salaried nurses – it was “constantly” employing higher numbers of permanent nurses.

And he said that because two-thirds of doctors are employed as contractors, only one third would be eligible for redundancy payouts.

But he said that in the long term, he would expect an increasing number of medical staff to be working in community and preventative healthcare, and delivering services that are both “better” and “cheaper”.

“We are committed to strengthening preventative care,” he said.

“Over time we will see more and more of our healthcare delivered in our community.”

He also claimed the Government had “engaged” with membership organisations.

Mulholland said that was simply “not true”.

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