Doctors sound alarm over looming health department cuts in state budget

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Doctors have warned that the Andrews government’s plan to cut civil servants in the health department could add to further waiting list blowouts and put health programs at risk despite assurances that frontline services won’t be slashed in next month’s budget.

Department heads have been told to axe staff numbers by up to 10 per cent ahead of the May 23 state budget owing to the financial hangover from the pandemic and Victoria’s growing net debt, which is tipped to reach $165 billion by 2025-26.

Victorian Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas.Credit: Meredith O’Shea

While Premier Daniel Andrews has warned this year’s budget papers will make for “challenging” reading, the government has also promised there will be no frontline health service job losses.

“That has never been what our government has done,” Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas told reporters earlier this week.“What I can assure everyone is that all of our election commitments will be delivered, and we will continue to deliver the healthcare services that Victorians need and expect.”

However, Rural Doctors Association of Victoria president Dr Dan Wilson said Australia’s healthcare system is in a “massive period of flux” and it was risky to throw department cost-cutting into the mix.

“To cut 10 per cent … I’d be greatly concerned about the feasibility of the Victorian state health department programs continuing in their current versions which rely heavily on back-of-house work,” he said.

“You pull some of those jobs away … and some sections of the community – often marginalised groups – get put on the backburner.”

The health department is responsible for the state’s hospitals and health practitioners, but also runs a range of programs and education campaigns for immunisation, dental hygiene and nutrition.

Wilson said programs relating to family planning, preventative healthcare, and First Nations, migrant and LGBTQ people should all be ringfenced in the budget.

Ahead of any potential cuts, Safer Care Victoria chief executive Andrew Wilson will meet with the health sector on April 26 to discuss ways to improve healthcare delivery, according to health sector sources.

Victorian Healthcare Association chief executive Leigh Clarke said the sector was expecting billions of dollars to be set aside in the upcoming budget for new hospitals, but warned that should not come at the expense of adequately funding health services across the board.

“Inflation has slashed our public health service budgets this year and it may continue to do that for some time,” Clarke said.

“This is happening while public health services face rising demand from sicker people with more complex needs, including people who delayed or deferred care during the pandemic lockdown periods.

“If funding doesn’t match or exceed inflation this year, it could have an impact on frontline health services. This could alter how long people wait for care.”

Andrews has been lobbying the federal government for more health funding after the COVID-era 50-50 health funding deal between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments expired at the end of 2022.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one minister on the Albanese government’s Expenditure Review Committee – the subcommittee of cabinet responsible for federal budget decisions – indicated the federal government would be unlikely to make any significant changes to the way health funding is delivered.

The Andrews government says it has only ever sought Victoria’s fair share of federal funding.

Australian Medical Association Victorian president Roderick McRae said the government’s promises that no frontline services would be impacted were inaccurate. He argued that cuts to any part of the healthcare budget would flow through to the rest of the sector.

“We understand there are budgetary constraints … however, the AMA is advocating for a health-led recovery,” McRae said. “So much work needs to be done, and we can’t do it with skeleton staff.”

Opposition health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier challenged the government’s claims that frontline health services would be protected from upcoming budget cuts.

“There are a whole range of people that deliver healthcare. Community health is again being targeted,” she said.

“For the minister to say those frontline services won’t be affected, I’m not sure that is actually the reality. The government needs to rule out these cuts.”

A Department of Health spokeswoman said the state government invested more than $12 billion in health in last year’s budget.

“We’ll continue to deliver the frontline healthcare services, new health infrastructure and dedicated healthcare staff our state needs,” the spokeswoman said.

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