It’s a move that’s been labelled ‘Stalinist’ and a ‘dictatorial-style stitch-up’, but preparations are already underway for the transition of Calvary Public Hospital Bruce to the hands of the ACT Government.
While the formal transition period of all staff, assets and services can’t be started until the Health Infrastructure Enabling Bill 2023 passes the Legislative Assembly, the government wants it all done and dusted by 3 July.
There have been reports a secret team had been set up and had been working on this for the past six months.
That’s something Northside Hospital Transition Team deputy director general Cathie O’Neill has refuted.
She said while there had always been people working on negotiations with Calvary and a potential northside hospital development, which the ACT Government had committed money to in the 2021-22 Budget, her team wasn’t set up until much more recently.
“The operational side of the transition team has only been brought in in the last couple of weeks,” Ms O’Neill said.
“[It was] once the government had made some firm decisions where they were heading with this.”
Calvary has accused the government of acting out of turn by setting up a portal for staff to start voluntarily registering their details with Canberra Health Services (CHS).
“The Territory is effectively seeking to enforce the legislation before it is even passed by dealing with Calvary’s staff without any right to do so,” a spokesperson said.
“Until such time the legislation is passed, our relationship with the Territory is governed by the Calvary Network Agreement.”
Ms O’Neill agreed legally her team wasn’t allowed to do anything until the bill passed but insisted everything was above board.
“We can’t just administratively transfer their employment; that would actually be a breach of their human rights because, as an individual, you have the right to choose who your employer is,” she said.
“So that’s why we need to go through a process of asking [staff] to register their interest in the first instance.
“We have asked people to start to voluntarily come forward, as much as anything, just so we can make a bit of a headstart testing our process and start to talk to people to allay their anxieties.”
About 30 staff members have already provided information to CHS, and more than 100 have attended information sessions about the acquisition.
According to the yet-to-be-passed legislation, it is a requirement that both Calvary and the government develop a transition plan and work “co-operatively and collaboratively”.
Even though Calvary Health Care has indicated it is seeking legal advice, Ms O’Neill said she would be focusing on the operational level.
“I think we will be able to work collaboratively at that level, notwithstanding the sensitivities that will be posed going through this,” she said.
“My responsibility is to ensure service continuity, and I know the team at Calvary Public Hospital Bruce are equally committed to delivering service continuity and support for their workforce.”
She said the word ‘transition’ could be misleading, stating things would largely remain the same at the site for several months.
“The staff that are currently working at Calvary Public Hospital Bruce, it’s our intention to offer them all positions, and that position will be the position they’re in at the moment, under the same conditions that they’re currently being employed under, reporting to the same team manager, doing the same work,” Ms O’Neill said.
“We’re not anticipating making any significant changes to start with, and by that, I mean several months … there’s no desire to do anything radical or do anything quickly.”
Ms O’Neill said the team would also work with contractors on the site – such as cleaners, food providers and the childcare centre – to transfer their contracts to CHS, “so there should be no impact on their employees”.
Some questions have also been raised about how CHS could complete this transition in such a short period.
Ms O’Neill said the digital health record and the intention to keep the same staff in the same jobs simplified the process.
“It’s not as if we’re removing a workforce and having to come in with a brand new workforce the next day,” she said.
As for other processes, such as making sure new pay systems are set up and changing ownership licenses, Ms O’Neill was confident they could be done within the government’s imposed timeframe to ensure the hospital could continue operating safely.
No disruptions are expected anytime soon for patients either, with demolition not expected to begin until 2025.
Last week it was announced the ACT Government would be taking over the Calvary Public Hospital Bruce site, with more than $1 billion set aside in the 2023-24 Budget for the project.
The introduction of the legislation to make this possible – the Health Infrastructure Enabling Bill 2023 – has also been met with opposition after the Labor-Greens government voted to allow debate on the matter in the Assembly before a scrutiny committee report had been published, which is not usually how bills are treated.
The next sitting week begins on 31 May, and the bill is expected to be debated in this period.
The announcement has been met with fierce opposition, with Canberra Goulburn Archbishop Christopher Prowse galvanising the local community to help with the fight, urging them to sign a petition to reject any attempts by the ACT Government to acquire the site.