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Nursing Federation discusses the effect of aged care patients on the public health system.

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VIVIAN SCHENKER: The federal opposition is in danger of becoming a casualty of its own campaign to make health a major issue ahead of this year's election. Kim Beazley's credibility and personal character has come under bitter attack from the government, which has accused him of lying about his daughter's treatment in the public hospital system. At the heart of the dispute are conflicting stories from the opposition leader and a Perth hospital where 22-year-old Hannah Beazley recently went for treatment for appendicitis. The issue gave the coalition an opportunity to censure Mr Beazley in federal parliament, but he's standing by his version of events and insists the issue highlights a crisis in emergency wards that affects every Australian family.


Cathy Van Extel has been watching the political feud unfold, and she joins us again. Cathy, how has this damaged Kim Beazley politically?


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Kim Beazley of course consistently performs strongly in the opinion polls for being trustworthy, and I think his handling of this issue is going to tarnish some of that gloss, because the fact is that yesterday when he was recounting the details of this story it was a movable feast and it did give the government the opportunity to label him with the tag of being a liar. Of course the flip side of the coin is that the Labor Party has been able to keep health well and truly firmly on the agenda, rather than the government's issue of tax, and certainly the problems of hospital bed availability and waiting times are going to have resonance with a lot of voters.


Certainly the points that Kim Beazley was making yesterday about the system, the public hospital system, were being backed by people who work in the public hospitals, and late yesterday I spoke to Mark Olson who's the state secretary of the West Australian branch of the Australian Nurses Federation just about this issue.


Mark Olson, welcome to Radio national breakfast.


MARK OLSON: Good morning, Cathy.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Was Kim Beazley right to use the example of his daughter to highlight problems in the health system?


MARK OLSON: I'm not sure whether it's appropriate to use the example of his daughter. I think that's a question for his daughter. But the fact is the hospital, public health system is struggling and one of the reasons that the hospital system is struggling is because of the large number of aged care residents currently being accommodated in the acute section of the public hospital system.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Do you have any figures for the number of people who should be in nursing homes who are being held say, for example, in Sir Charles?


MARK OLSON: The figure is around the 40 to 45 residents. That's the number. It varies sometimes on a daily or a weekly basis. We also know that there are around 170 to 200 aged care residents across the metropolitan public health system in the acute sector.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: So you then don't accept the federal government's argument that this is essentially a state government responsibility?


MARK OLSON: We certainly don't accept that argument. What we are seeing is the effects of the aged care crisis now rolling over into the acute side of the public hospital system. And for the public in Western Australia those 170 to 200 beds that are not available, it means that 7,000 elective operations won't be done this year or next year or the year after. And that's the true effect of the aged care crisis.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Is the nurses union satisfied with the level of money that the state government is injecting into the public hospital system in Western Australia?


MARK OLSON: I think there can always be an argument put that there's never enough money going into health at a state and a federal level. The question that comes up more often than not is: where are those funds being spent? And in the last decade we have seen increasing amounts of money spent on what we would consider to be unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. One of the things that we have commended the current state government on is pring back those unnecessary layers of bureaucracy so that the funds are spent at the acute, the pointy end of health care, and that is delivery of services to patients.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Given that the issue of Mr Beazley's daughter has become a public and nationally debated issue, have you had any concerns raised by your members from Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital?


MARK OLSON: As far as the service provided by Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital goes, we would stand by both the medical staff and the nursing staff of that hospital. It's a hospital that I worked at for almost 10 years and I know that any patient presenting to the casualty department of the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital would receive the level of care that is appropriate for the particular condition that they're presenting with. So we have no concerns from the staff. We have no concerns from our members working at the Sir Charles Gairdner about the level of service that they provide from the casualty department.


The concern that we have at Sir Charles Gairdner is the same at every other public hospital at the moment. We simply don't have enough nurses and we simply don't have enough beds.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: The point that the opposition leader is making in this particular case is that those with private health insurance are able to jump the queue in the public hospital or fast-track treatment by going to a private hospital.


MARK OLSON: It was fortunate that Mr Beazley's daughter was able to access the services of a private hospital, and I think that's a personal choice that members of the community make and it's appropriate that they make that choice if they want that particular level of cover.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Do you have any hope then that this current debate will in fact result in improvements?


MARK OLSON: I don't believe the current problems bedevilling the public health system in Western Australia will be addressed until we start looking at the crisis that is rapidly turning into a catastrophe in aged care, because it has a direct impact on the services that the state health system can provide. And it must be remembered that aged care is a federal responsibility. The federal government cannot walk away from it, and the biggest problem we have in aged care is not enough nurses again, ten times worse than what's happening in the public health system, and it's not surprising that that's the case when we look at the conditions that are on offer for those nurses—grossly inferior to what's available to nurses working in the public sector. So until the federal government is prepared to bite the bullet and implement policies that will turn around the massive exodus of nurses out of aged care, then we really won't be able to make a dent in the problems that we have in the state's public health system.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Mark Olson, thank you for your time.


MARK OLSON: Not a problem, Cathy.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Mark Olson, the state secretary of the West Australian branch of the Australian Nurses Federation, speaking with Cathy Van Extel.