Lower Hunter Hospital Project

Rumours are circulating in the community about the new Lower Hunter hospital. People in the Cessnock electorate have asked me about the project many times. It is well established that the Government has chosen the wrong site for the hospital. How the Government came to the conclusion that this regional hospital did not need to be near the new Hunter Expressway is beyond my comprehension as well as the comprehension of the medical fraternity and the wider Hunter community.

The Hunter Expressway will fundamentally change traffic patterns across the Hunter Valley. It will become the aorta of the region, and yet the hospital will not be located next to it. That is because the Government was determined to take the cheap option—not the good option—and thus condemn health care in the Hunter to the consequences of this second-rate decision. Even more troubling is the scuttlebutt that the new hospital will be privately run. After hearing these rumours and the concerns of my constituents I went to the form guide. Sure enough, the Minister has had a run at this distance. On 2 May last year the Minister announced that the Government would be “seeking expressions of interest from the private and not-for-profit sector to design, build, operate and maintain a 423-bed hospital on the northern beaches”.

The private sector will design, build, operate and maintain this hospital. That does not leave much for the Government to do. I would have thought that running hospitals was central to a government’s responsibilities, but evidently not. Like any other privately operated service, private hospitals are run for profit. The duty of a private company is to its shareholders, not to the public. When greater profit is sought, charges go up and service levels go down. It is that simple. The New South Wales experience with privately run public hospitals is one of disaster after disaster. The Auditor-General’s report on Port Macquarie Hospital, which the Government paid for twice and then gave away, is now infamous. But members need not believe me: they can ask the Nurses and Midwives Association, which would have a fair idea of what does and does not work in hospitals. In January this year the association said, in reference to the Lower Hunter hospital, “We don’t want another Frenchs Forest.”

There is concern and suspicion in the community. I am part way through a dozen community barbecues that I am staging across my electorate. Every time I visit a village, centre or suburb the subject of the hospital is raised. The public that I serve want to know who will own it, who will run it and whether the general public will be able to access it. I tell them that based on the Government’s form and the fact that nobody knows otherwise, it looks as though the Government plans to implement the Frenchs Forest model for the new Lower Hunter hospital. My constituents respond with cool anger towards that idea. Although it is not this Government’s usual style, I call on the Minister for Health to end the uncertainty and scuttlebutt, to be clear about her intentions and to address the concerns of the community. Please let them know whether the hospital will be public or private. Will the new Lower Hunter hospital serve all or only those who can afford it?

If the Minister does not answer these questions we will continue the conversation without knowing what the future holds. The site chosen away from the Hunter Expressway is an indication that the hospital will be built based on dollars and not on community need. The chosen site is Crown land, which means in essence that the project will not cost the Government anything. This piece of infrastructure will ultimately cost in the vicinity of $500 million and last between 50 and 70 years. It will serve a population that over that time will grow towards a quarter of a million people. It therefore seems crazy that a decision at the earliest stages of the project would hinge on $2 million or $3 million. In fact, some landowners immediately adjacent to the Hunter Expressway have indicated their willingness to give their land to the Government in the interests of driving a better and more robust health solution for the Lower Hunter.