DISGRUNTLED doctors will meet with representatives from Southern NSW Local Health today in a bid to end a contract dispute that threatens to see an exodus of senior medical staff from Queanbeyan Hospital.
The Queanbeyan Age can confirm the meeting will take place after Southern NSW Local Health moved to slash the contracted rates offered to three of the hospital's most experienced specialists.
Those doctors affected include long-standing general surgeon Vincent Ferraro and the hospital's senior gynaecologist/obstetrician.
The stand-off follows Southern NSW Local Health's decision not to renew the specialists' contracts under the pre-existing Rural Doctors Association rates. That's despite the fact Queanbeyan Hospital is a designated RDA Hospital.
RDA rates are 40 per cent higher than those offered to doctors in non-RDA hospitals due to the greater demand on their services than at larger, more highly staffed hospitals.
Dr Ferraro told The Age that the move will directly impact patient services at Queanbeyan Hospital while forcing some patients onto longer waiting lists in Canberra and Sydney.
It is understood however, that Southern NSW Local Health in unconvinced RDA rates should continue to be applicable to Queanbeyan given the hospital's size and proximity to Canberra.
Southern NSW Local Health chief executive Dr Max Alexander declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
But in a statement, Dr Alexander maintained that non-resident specialist Visiting Medical Officers, in this case VMOs living in Canberra, not Queanbeyan, are not automatically entitled to an RDA rate.
Dr Ferraro, however, said the hospital was primarily interested in cost cutting and that the reduced contracts offered were untenable.
"What they are doing is imposing new contracts with a reduced remuneration of between 30-40 per cent," Dr Ferraro said. "If those terms remain unchanged, I will not be accepting [the contract] and I will be withdrawing my services from Queanbeyan Hospital.
"We are not asking for more money. But as per the agreement between the RDA and the NSW Government, Queanbeyan Hospital is an RDA designated hospital and we are entitled to that rate.
"That is the rate we've been paid at for the past 10-15 years but this comes down to cost cutting. They're looking to save money and they've picked on us to do it."
The Age has been told that one consultant obstetrician has already resigned and that another long-standing consultant obstetrician has not accepted their new contract. This however, was not confirmed by Southern NSW Local Health.
In a twist to the tale, Dr Ferraro told The Age that two other doctors have been offered new contracts under RDA rates - further exacerbating tensions between hospital administration and the affected staff.
"In one way, they say they're trying to get Queanbeyan away from being an RDA designated hospital by offering three people non-RDA contracts," Dr Ferraro said.
"But at the same time they've recognised that they are an RDA Hospital by offering two other doctors RDA contracts. Where is the common sense or the equity in that?"
Dr Ferraro estimated the three affected VMOs conduct approximately 80 per cent of the surgical procedures carried out at Queanbeyan Hospital.
And he said more junior staff would be unable or unwilling to carry out those same procedures in Queanbeyan, forcing patients onto longer waiting lists in Canberra or Sydney.
Dr Alexander however, said in his statement that Southern NSW Local Health had "alternative arrangements in place to deal with any impacts that have arisen from this matter."
Both Southern NSW Local Health and Dr Ferraro said they were hopeful the impasse could be overcome at today's meeting.