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These cuts will damage health

Can you pull billions of dollars from the health system and still maintain quality? Yvonne Chaperon thinks not

Unfortunately, this isn’t a hypothetical question. Billions upon billions of dollars are being ripped from the health budgets across the country. And it’s the nurses, midwives and the people they care for who are suffering.

State governments are sacking highly trained nurses, failing to recruit nursing graduates, closing beds, and shutting down vital mental health services and public and preventative health programs.

Make no mistake: from the Australian Nursing Federation’s perspective, these cost-cutting exercises are a direct attack on nursing and care staff and their daily working conditions, resulting in serious impacts on the amount of safe, quality patient care they can deliver – whether they’re in a hospital emergency department, a maternity ward, a mental health unit or a community health facility.

Australia faces a chronic shortage of nurses. By 2025 the shortfall will reach 109,000 nurses. In the under-resourced age care sector alone, 20,000 nurses are urgently required to cope with a rapidly ageing population.

In Tasmania, the graduate nurse intake has been cut by two-thirds and 280 nurses are losing their jobs. We’re seeing the effects already, with mental health services at a point of implosion.

As Australia’s largest health union, the Australian Nursing Federation maintains that no health system can afford to lose so many qualified nursing staff without a decline in healthcare.

Slash-and-burn cost-cutting will only lead to excessive and dangerous workloads for nurses and midwives, compromised patient care, longer stays in emergency departments and a blowout in elective surgery waiting times.

In Queensland, savage health cuts have been described by Together union secretary Alex Scott as “the destruction of the public health system as we know it”, with more than 4000 redundancy packages funded for its health department. In NSW, the O’Farrell government is cutting $775 million in labour costs and “saving” $2.3 billion from the back office to put in the front line over the next four years.

People in critical jobs are being offered redundancies, including nursing unit managers, clinical nurse educators, nurse educators, clinical nurse consultants and nurse managers.

In Victoria, care is being compromised as the health system struggles with the growing demand for services. In South Australia, it’s feared 300 jobs will be lost and 114 hospital beds closed, to meet target savings of $83 million.

In fact, international evidence shows that higher registered nurse staffing reduces numbers of deaths in hospital, incidents of what’s called “failure to rescue” (deaths due to treatable complications) and lengths of stay.

What price patient care?

Yvonne Chaperon is the Australian Nursing Federation’s assistant federal secretary.

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