Innocent victims of hospital dispute
By ZOE SATHERLEY
Marshall Fittler's heart aches when he holds his seven-year-old grandaughter Bonnie. Bonnie has a rare and serious form of leukaemia. Her grandad fears the on-going medical crisis at Lismore Base Hospital will endanger the life of the little girl if she needs treatment. The Goonellabah man has taken it on himself to call a public meeting this Saturday at the Lismore City Hall to help save the Base Hospital. His crusade began as negotiations between the hospital's doctors and the North Coast Area Health Service failed to find a solution at a crisis meeting on Monday night. At the meeting the doctors issued an ultimatum to the North Coast Area Health Service to find a solution to the contract dispute with anaesthetists and the $30 million funding shortfall to the region. They want the anaesthetists to be allowed to return to work as they believe operating with locums is too dangerous. Dr Chris Ingall, Vice Chair of the Medical Staff Council, said patient safety issues could see all but life threatening surgery cancelled by the end of the week if no solution was found. He said North Coast Area Health Service chief executive Chris Crawford seemed to hold out a compromise at the Monday night meeting, saying it might be possible to employ the anaesthetists as locums. This would allow time for their tender to provide an anaesthetic service at LBH to be reviewed again. The tender was submitted to the Department of Health who accepted it, but refused to provide medical indemnity insurance for the doctors, who wouldn't accept these terms. Dr Ingall said Mr Crawford had indicated it may be possible for the insurance to be provided after all. Yesterday morning, before he became NSW Premier and while he was still Minister for Health, Maurice Iemma issued a statement on the health crisis facing the Northern Rivers. A spokeswoman said: "Mr Iemma is aware of, and understands, the concerns raised by the Lismore community in relation to contracts between the North Coast Area Health Service (NCAHS) and local doctors. "While it would be inappropriate for the Minister to intervene at this point, the Minister has asked the NSW Health Department and North Coast Area Health Service to expedite their efforts to reach an amicable conclusion to contractual negotiations with the doctors." Mr Crawford yesterday said the NSW Government would invest $542 million in health and public hospitals in the North Coast region during 2005/06. "This year's allocation for NCAHS is $44 million more than last year, an increase of 8.8 per cent," he said. "This record budget means that funding for the area has increased by $333 million, or 159 per cent, since the Labor Government came to office." Executive members of the Lismore Base Hospital Medical Staff Council (MSC) have pledged to attend the Saturday protest meeting to explain to the community why the hospital is in chaos. "This hospital crisis is affecting everyone's family," said Mr Fittler. "It's about my granddaughter, your brother, the neighbour's wife, your workmate's baby, your mum or dad, little children ... poor health care affects everyone. "I can't just sit back and let the State Government play Russian roulette with the health of my family and our community. "I care passionately about our hospital, and I believe there must be hundreds of others who also care enough to come and discuss what can be done about the crisis. "This isn't a dispute about greedy doctors. The surgeons aren't asking for any more money. "It's a dispute about them not being allowed to operate on their patients because there is not enough money allocated by the State Government to keep Lismore Base Hospital's operating theatres open. "And there is not enough money to replace old equipment, either. "People need to be prepared to get off their backsides and come to the meeting and help to do something about it." n The public forum on the hospital crisis will be held in Lismore City Hall from 2-4pm on Saturday. If you can't come, but would like to sign a petition, call 6624 4879 with your details.