The Canberra Liberals have accused Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith of “utter contempt for Canberrans” in failing to deliver on the government’s 2020 election promise to build a $21 million elective surgery centre at the University of Canberra Hospital.
During annual reports hearings on Thursday (16 November), Ms Stephen-Smith defended the decision, saying that the ACT Government decided to go in a “different direction”.
“When circumstances change, you have to look at how you can deliver on your objectives in a way that most effectively uses taxpayer money. And that is what we have done,” she said.
“What we have seen across our entire infrastructure program is escalating costs. So while that project was costed at $21 million in 2020, we know the construction costs have increased substantially since then. So this would be a more expensive project that we have concluded … would not be the most efficient and effective use of taxpayer money.”
Ms Stephen-Smith said there could be potential in the future for day surgery procedures to take place in community-based health centres, such as the North Gungahlin Centre.
“Having a day surgery capacity in Gungahlin … would be good. Again, we still need to do the work on that, but that’s one of the considerations.”
She also pointed out that the government is working through the redevelopment of Northside Hospital, “a commitment that I don’t believe the Canberra Liberals firmly made”.
“Certainly, the Canberra Liberals didn’t commit to anything in relation to additional surgical capacity for elective surgeries despite making a commitment to a completely unachievable number of elective surgeries.”
Ms Castley said the minister’s response showed “Labor was never really serious about honouring this commitment for an elective surgery centre at the University of Canberra”.
“This just shows Labor’s utter contempt for Canberrans. The minister is basically saying that if the public doesn’t focus on a particular promise, then it’s excusable to abandon it,” Ms Castley said.
“This government has a track record of overpromising and under-delivery of health infrastructure projects, but today’s evidence shows Labor’s promises on health infrastructure are not worth the paper they are written on.”
Labor had promised at the last election to begin work with the University of Canberra for the elective surgery centre to be operational by 2024-25.
The centre was under consideration for just over a year, from late 2021 to January 2023. During this time, several clinical project staff were tasked with looking into the project and just over $2500 was spent on consultants to conduct a feasibility study.
Ms Castley suggested that the small amount spent on the project relative to its cost indicated it “wasn’t a priority in the first place”.
The ACT Government has promised to deliver a “record number” of elective surgeries in the next financial year despite failing to meet targets previously set.
According to the most recent annual report, it had promised to deliver 14,800 elective surgeries in the 2022-23 financial year but only managed 12,627. This financial year, ACT Health is aiming to carry out 15,500 elective surgeries.
The report said that in the last financial year, 2161 people waited longer than the clinically recommended timeframe for surgery, five times the target of 430.
“Last year, Canberra Health Services fell way short on elective surgery targets, meaning that many patients are living in pain and discomfort,” Ms Castley said.
She pointed out that the number of patients waiting longer than recommended for elective surgeries was 58 per cent higher than the 1364 at the end of 2021-22.
Ms Stephen-Smith said elective surgeries were impacted by the electrical fire at North Canberra Hospital in December 2022, which damaged seven operating theatres.
“That was very significantly disrupted by the theatre fires and the loss of some vital equipment, which has obviously now been replaced and the theatres are now open,” she said.
The minister told the annual report hearing that two in five urology patients are overdue surgery, largely because 80 per cent of urology surgeries are performed at North Canberra Hospital. According to data from October 2023, 230 out of 572 urology patients waiting for surgery had waited longer than recommended.