Last week was another milestone for the ACT’s ailing health system, with yet more bad performance reports for its emergency departments and elective surgery waiting times, and the release of draft plans for the Canberra Hospital expansion that we all hope will remedy a chronic situation.
The local AMA continues to assert that chronic underfunding and a lack of capacity is at the heart of the problems. The number of beds at Canberra Hospital just hasn’t kept pace with the city’s population, it says.
So the expansion plans are welcome as a sign that we are edging towards a start next year on a project that has been a long time coming.
Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith has reminded us that it is only one piece in the overall puzzle, and acknowledges that there is more work to do in the ED to improve the situation there.
Other pieces include the bigger Centenary Hospital for Women and Children, and the new mental health ward under way, and longer-term projects such as a northside hospital and elective surgery centre.
The expansion is set down to be completed in 2024, an election year, and a start on the northside hospital is not expected until the middle of the decade.
So Labor is likely to face more bad headlines in the meantime and while it can argue the system is on the mend it can’t afford to suffer the delays or changes in direction that have marked the lead-up to where we are now.
Voters may have been forgiving enough to give Labor the benefit of the doubt in the past, particularly with not much of an alternative on offer, but come 2024 and there are failures to deliver, a rejuvenated Opposition may be back in the game.
The health projects will also be competing for funds with other infrastructure plans including light rail and the Woden CIT. There are many who believe that funding was diverted from the health system for light rail and the expansion, as conceived under Katy Gallagher, scaled back from its original scope.
That is all water under the bridge now but Ms Stephen-Smith will need to muscle up in the Cabinet room to ensure that the funding is there so the health infrastructure strategy she has committed to is delivered and not kicked down the road as the Canberra region population continues to grow.
The other big issue with Canberra Hospital is the overhaul of its poor culture and management practices. When asked about it, the hospital chiefs rattle off a long list of initiatives underway to turn the ship around but the results so far appear mixed and they will need to maintain momentum if things are to really improve.
They will also need to be open and transparent about the process, with the community having so much investment in the hospital and so many willing to let opposition politicians and journalists know about any lack of progress or the latest ”scandal”.
Trying to keep the lid on a situation will inevitably blow up in the faces of management and government.
Health, with its intractable problems, can be a graveyard for ministers.
Ms Stephen-Smith deserves our goodwill so Canberra gets the health system the national capital deserves, but voters next time may not be so forgiving if her promises prove beyond her.