Hospital backs down as docs return to work

CHIEF executive of Southern NSW Local Health Dr Max Alexander says he feels no need to apologise to patients whose surgical services were affected during the pay dispute between Queanbeyan Hospital administration and senior specialists.

The long-running stoush, which has been playing out behind the scenes and then publically for more than eight months, was finally resolved last Friday.

The impasse was broken after Southern NSW Local Health backed down on its demand that the three affected specialists take a 40 per cent pay cut to continue offering services at Queanbeyan hospital.

Instead, the doctors have been offered new contracts in line with their previous agreements to run through until 2016. 

Dozens of the hospital’s patients faced increasing uncertainty as the dispute dragged on over the past month with operating lists deferred and long-planned surgeries having to be rescheduled.

Dr Alexander acknowledged the dispute had proven “disruptive” to hospital services but declined to offer an apology on behalf of Southern NSW Local Health to those patients affected.

“From where I’m sitting, I think we did the right thing in terms of looking after patients with alternate care pathways in the meantime,” he said.

“Disruption [in this instance] was change from what people expected. It does not mean that people did not get appropriate care.

“Patients…were given options. They were able to continue with their original specialist if they wished…and we also offered people an alternative, from another specialist on staff offering equivalent level service.

“I don’t think it’s fair to categorise that as particularly disadvantaging the health outcomes of people…so I don’t feel any need at all to provide an apology for what has happened.”

Friday’s agreement, which was brokered between the NSW Ministry of Health, the Rural Doctors Association and Southern NSW Local Health, will see the three specialists reappointed under RDA contracts.

However, it will also see Queanbeyan Hospital begin to transition away from its status as a rural hospital with its RDA designation to be phased out over the next three years.

As a part of that process, RDA contracts, which carry a higher 40 per cent loading than the more common MBS Schedule rates, will not be offered to any new appointees.

All current RDA contract arrangements involving both GP and specialist Visiting Medical Officers will be also allowed to expire between now and 2016.

The final agreement closely matches the compromise offer put forward by the RDA several weeks ago, raising the question as to why the dispute could not be resolved earlier.

Dr Alexander however, rejected the idea that Southern NSW Local Health had ultimately been forced to back down in the face of public or political pressure.

“As a person with responsibilities for a whole health system, I have to be very careful to use available resources wisely and make all kinds of decisions relating to resources allocation,” Dr Alexander said.

“We formed a view based on what we thought was right and what was…in the rules; rules that were agreed to by the RDA. So [ours] was not an extreme position.

“All we can say is that position was not looked upon well by those involved which is how we ended up at the negotiating table…but this is a good and sensible outcome that people can work with.”

Although not specified as part of the agreement, Dr Alexander said Southern NSW Local Health would be seeking additional government funding to cover the costs of the new contracts. 

The three affected specialists have confirmed to The Queanbeyan Age that they will be taking up the new contract offers and will return to work at Queanbeyan Hospital as soon as possible.

Chair of Queanbeyan Hospital’s medical staff council Dr Anthony Stevenson, meanwhile, said he was happy to see the conflict resolved.

“There has been a degree of concern of the duration [of time] this has taken,” he said. “But now that it has been resolved, we’re happy to move on and get services back to normal.” 

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