Opinion: Regional hospitals on the chopping block as health crisis worsens

Hospitals in regional WA would be downgraded or closed in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, leaving communities without the ability to access local emergency care, vaccinations, or COVID testing facilities when they need it most.
The WA Country Health Service (WACHS) is currently undertaking a regional tour attempting to soften expectations as they continue to face workforce pressures.
A plan to close hospitals down should be an absolute last resort – as it would rip essential services out of regional communities – but despite a two-year lead time to develop a real plan for regional health, the State Government has given up.
And while the Premier has admitted he has lost control of the current COVID-19 outbreak, communities in regional WA are anxiously awaiting a plan. And they deserve one.
COVID-19 is now spreading in regional WA – with cases in the South West, the Wheatbelt, and more recently, on mining sites in the Pilbara.
Yet the State Government has been alarmingly quiet on how regional cases will be managed, hospital protocols improved, testing put into place, or staffing shortages addressed.
One question that demands a clear answer is what will happen when COVID positive residents in regional WA become sick and require medical treatment.
With our regional hospitals under-resourced and understaffed, the Premier has previously stated critically ill COVID patients in regional WA would be sent to Perth for care.
But this will only increase the burden on a struggling Perth health system, as well as for the Royal Flying Doctor Service and St John Ambulance – who will have to act as a taxi service for hundreds of critically ill patients on top of their usual operations.
And it risks spreading regional health resources thin, as local volunteers and ambulances are removed from the community and forced to ramp for hours at metropolitan hospitals.
On a daily basis, the Government encourages the community to get tested trying to limit and control the current outbreak. In many regional towns, the only place to do this is your local hospital, if you have one.
How will this important testing occur if hours are reduced,or hospitals closed because we do not have sufficient staff or plans in place?
If residents need to travel long distances to access testing, will the State Government consider any financial compensation, or provide free rapid antigen tests (RATs) to these communities?
For instance, residents in Jurien Bay would be required to undertake a 250km round trip to Moora if they require testing. With multiple tests required to confirm negative status in some cases, and soaring petrol prices, these trips will quickly add up.
Practical steps need to be clarified early, so people know what is expected of them, and what assistance is available.
One potential solution to keep the pressure off hospitals is to support and boost our primary care system, allowing people who are ill with COVID-19, but don’t require hospitalisation, to remain in their homes with regular visits from healthcare staff.
Given the State’s almost $6 billion budget surplus, and its own Sustainable Health Review recommending greater focus and investment in primary care and preventative health, why are we no better today than we were in the years prior to COVID-19?
The Government also needs to urgently commit to a strategy to address the critical staff shortages in regional healthcare. Our State has a desperate need for healthcare workers, especially in the regions, yet we are now going into our third year of COVID-19 in our State without a plan.
In a desperate concession the State Government is unable to curb the critical shortage of staff in regional hospitals, WACHS are advertising pay-rates of up to $40,000 for a ten-day stint in Geraldton.
We’ve heard about hundreds of interstate healthcare workers who want to relocate to WA but have been denied entry into the State despite a repeated promise for a ‘compassionate and common sense’ approach to border controls.
Even simple steps like fast-tracking G2G applications and covering the quarantine costs for healthcare workers would make a huge difference, but nothing seems to be getting done.
A Government who had utilised the past two-years effectively would already have measures in place and would be well placed to answer the above questions, but as usual, the regions seem to have been ignored during this pandemic.
In the last fortnight the Minister for Education has reassured the community, strongly and repeatedly, that public schools will not close. Education is too important. Why won’t the Health Minister provide the same assurance for our public hospitals?