Health peace offer
By ZOE SATHERLEY
NORTH Coast Area Health chief Chris Crawford yesterday made a significant new offer to striking anaesthetists at Lismore Base Hospital.
He wants them to come back to work and has pledged that medical indemnity insurance would now be provided if they were prepared to re-submit an Expression of Interest to provide an anaesthetic service to Richmond Valley hospitals.
The previous tender was rejected by the health service as too expensive but it included a large budget component for anaesthetists to pay for their own insurance.
Mr Crawford's offer came just hours after NSW Premier Morris Iemma took an uncompromising hard line on the dispute.
Mr Iemma told Sydney media that he would not be held to ransom by Lismore anaesthetists and wasn't prepared to write a 'blank cheque' to keep them.
He said the proposed $100 million redevelopment of Lismore Base Hospital was not under threat.
Mr Bob McGregor, NSW Health deputy director-general, said he hoped the new offer from State Treasury to provide insurance cover would enable a consortium of local anaesthetists to put forward a proposal to provide a comprehensive service.
This process should be completed by the end of November.
He acknowledged that the area was under-funded but said this was a long-standing historical fact and that it was being progressively addressed.
Anaesthetist Dr Neil Stokes said he was surprised at Mr Iemma's comments.
"We haven't asked for a blank cheque," he said.
"What we are asking for is reasonable and fair.
"I haven't seen the new offer yet so I will reserve my judgment until I have.
"However, it will need to address the underlying problem in this dispute which is that we cannot keep the doctors we have, or attract new ones to the area, without some kind of financial incentive.
"My understanding of the offer Mr Crawford is making is that we must work under the new contractual agreement that he has put forward.
"That agreement does not give us a pay rise and requires all work to be covered by us. That means we have to do all the work currently being done by locums as well as our own work.
"There would be serious health and safety issues if we did this.
"For example, I might be required to start work at 7am, work all day and then go on-call until 7am the following day. It is quite possible I would be asked to work non-stop for 24 hours.
"We would have to be on-call one day in three to cover the after-hours roster. We can't physically do it.
"The problems we are facing are common to rural physicians across the whole State and need to be addressed at a State level.
"At this stage I do not expect to return to work on Monday."
The executive of the Medical Staff Council is meeting today to decide on its response to the crisis.
Anaesthetist Dr Penny Hall talks about the safety concerns of using locums on Page 12 in today's letters.