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Private Members Statement - Northern Beaches Hospital

The Northern Beaches Hospital in Frenchs Forest is unique in the State. As a public-private partnership, the hospital is wholly owned and operated by a private company called Healthscope. The New South Wales Government spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year to purchase services for public patients attending the hospital.

The operating model for the hospital, where a for-profit entity delivers our frontline public health services, has been controversial from the outset. The opening of the hospital in 2018 was plagued with teething problems and was the subject of a 2019 parliamentary inquiry that recommended the New South Wales Government never enter into any future public-private partnerships for public hospitals. Funny that. Performance has improved significantly since the bungled opening, but it is fair to say that community experience and the level of public trust in the hospital is very mixed. I hear many stories through my electorate office and local network of family and friends of bad experiences at the hospital—long waiting times, stretched staff and poor continuity of care. There are also many reports of the excellent care provided by healthcare professionals doing their best, and I thank every one of them.

Ensuring high-quality public health services under an integrated public-private model requires constant vigilance. There are a number of factors currently concerning me about the hospital. Firstly, several Bureau of Health Information metrics deteriorated for the Northern Beaches Hospital over the past year. When October to December 2023 is compared with the same quarter in the previous year, the percentage of patients starting emergency department treatment on time dropped 10 points to 71.1 per cent, the percentage of patients transferred from paramedics to ED staff within 30 minutes dropped by 11.2 points to 85.1 per cent and the percentage of patients leaving ED within four hours is down by 5.1 points to 50.6 per cent. These are concerning trends.

Secondly, there are recent reports of unacceptable pressure on staff. Doctor and nurse representatives say there are not enough staff employed by Northern Beaches Hospital to cover rosters, that new staff lack experience and that staff turnover is too high. Since June 2023, there have been a number of staff cuts, including reductions in the number of ED nurses, security guards and nurses in mental health wards. I was angry to hear that the results of a recent workplace survey found that one in two nurses and midwives at Northern Beaches Hospital were described as being in high or very high states of psychological distress at work. This is not okay.

Thirdly, Healthscope is under growing financial pressure. It holds a $1.6 billion debt which it is currently refinancing. The Healthscope operating income dropped to $82 million in 2023 from $182 million a year earlier. The current debt negotiation comes just one year after a previous round of refinancing. This is a sure indication that its financial position is getting worse, and it is reasonable to assume that it is under intense pressure from lenders to do further rounds of cost cutting.

It is for these reasons that I have advocated so strongly for the Audit Office of New South Wales to undertake a performance audit of the hospital. An independent performance audit will be a very useful reference and provide more transparency and clarity for our community. Where the hospital is found to be performing well, we can build public confidence. Where there are issues, we can work to understand and address them. I was very pleased on Monday to receive a letter from the Auditor-General confirming that the performance audit of Northern Beaches Hospital had commenced. The performance audit will use the Auditor‑General's new follow‑the‑dollar provisions. This type of situation is precisely why these provisions were legislated in late 2022. In fact, in 2019 the NSW Labor Opposition introduced a bill to allow follow‑the‑dollar provisions specifically for the purpose of facilitating an audit of Northern Beaches Hospital. I thank all MPs—and there are many—who worked to deliver the follow‑the‑dollar laws to enable greater scrutiny and accountability for public money going to private entities.

Securing the performance audit is just one aspect of my advocacy to ensure the best quality health services at Northern Beaches Hospital. I thank Minister Park for yesterday committing to request that the safe staffing task force investigate how to extend nurse-to-patient ratios at Northern Beaches Hospital. I will continue to listen and do all I can for our amazing, dedicated healthcare workers and for the community on the northern beaches, who rely on the care provided at Northern Beaches when they or a loved one are at their most vulnerable. To all intents and purposes, Northern Beaches Hospital is the local public hospital. It is the only hospital in an area of 280,000 people and growing. When people are sick and need help, it is where they go. The northern beaches community has every right to expect the same quality of services as other comparable public hospitals. After all, that is what was promised with the opening of the Northern Beaches Hospital in 2018, when the two previous truly local public hospitals in Mona Vale and Manly were closed.

9 May 2024, 17:25

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