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Thursday, May 6, 2021
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Amazing Clean

Can our health system handle the rollout?

The corona crisis has brought out the best in our nation’s leaders, both political and bureaucratic. But it has also exposed their weaknesses and shortcomings.

Gary Humphries
Gary Humphries AO.
Photo: Kerrie Brewer.

The National Cabinet has been a conspicuous success, raising the obvious question of why it has taken an international crisis to get federal and state decision-makers to sit around the one table and make real-time decisions in the national interest.

But not every decision has been made in the spirit of cooperation. Right now, a furious game of finger-pointing is underway regarding which level of government is responsible for delays in the vaccination rollout. Now is not the time to try to answer that question; that should await the national wash up once the pandemic is beaten.

What we do know with certainty is that our ACT health system was already creaking and groaning under the pressure of delivering standard services long before a man in central China ate a bat. This means we should be suspicious of claims that efficient local services were ready to deliver the vaccine but were frustrated by Commonwealth incompetence.

The ACT health system – our hospitals in particular – has languished at the bottom of the national performance tables for at least a decade. In many key areas it is the best funded but the worst performing of the nation’s health systems.

For example, a few months ago the ACT Audit Office published damning findings on the system’s management of chronic diseases like arthritis, cancer and diabetes. It found that four separate strategies rolled out over five years had been completely ineffective in improving the lot of people with these conditions. The report is a rollcall of failure and lost opportunity.

A $50 million expansion of the Hospital for Women and Children, due to be completed this year, now won’t be delivered until 2023, if we’re very lucky. Meanwhile, targets for seeing patients in our hospital emergency departments has been dropped from 90% within four hours to just 80% (perhaps a concession to the reality that only 57% are being seen within this timeframe anyway).

Our public health system has been staggering from one damning statistic to another for years, to such an extent that reports like the Auditor General’s barely register in the public consciousness anymore. People simply assume that services will be costly and ramshackle, but hope that they get lucky the next time they need to use the emergency department in the middle of the night.

So why would we imagine that a system in which poor standards and cost overruns are deeply ingrained will somehow perform magnificently now that a full-scale health crisis is washing over us?

But perhaps we get the health system that we deserve. It’s a mystery to me why a system this bad has been taken for granted for so many years by a well-educated, politically-aware Canberra community. Let’s hope the current crisis helps us see our health system with new eyes.

Gary Humphries AO is a former ACT MLA (1989-2003) and Chief Minister (2000-2001), and Australian Senator (2003-2013).

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