Health policy analysts and economists have accused the private hospital sector of being disingenuous and sparking public panic by saying without government assistance they will be forced to close due to the cancellation of non-essential elective surgery during the Covid-19 pandemic.
On Saturday, a coalition of private hospital operators warned the suspension of most semi-urgent and all non-urgent elective surgeries had strangled their revenue streams and would force them to close within days. On Monday, state and territory health ministers and premiers were holding talks with the sector to come to an agreement about how private staff and resources can be utilised elsewhere.
Ahead of the talks Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said staff in private hospitals “have a unique set of skills”.
“We will make the best use of those skills to fight this virus,” he said, adding that “one consolidated system of care” would be required in response to Covid-19.
The chief executive of Healthe Care, Australia’s third biggest private hospital operator, previously told Guardian Australia the prime minister, Scott Morrison, had caught the sector by surprise when he announced that non-urgent elective surgery would be banned from midnight that night.
But chair of the Australian Healthcare Alliance Jennifer Doggett said: “The private hospital sector is being completely disingenuous by claiming that the elective surgery shutdown was sudden.”
“This measure had been called for repeatedly by medical experts and peak bodies such as the Australian Medical Association for weeks and was clear,” she said. “The private hospital sector is only one of many industries suffering from a loss of business due to the pandemic – they should not be entitled to any more support than any other private business.”
Doggett said it was essential the mixed public and private health system in Australia had a plan in place for diverting resources from elective to urgent services when required. This plan should have been developed prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, she said, “so that it could be implemented promptly and without the political opportunism that is being displayed currently by the private hospital sector”.
Doggett added that private hospitals benefited from significant amounts of government funding, via Medicare and the private health insurance rebate.
“As part of this public funding they should be required to work collaboratively with government in a national health crisis situation,” she said. “This would at least deliver some returns to Australians for the billions of tax payer dollars invested into the private health sector every year. The Covid-19 pandemic should make it clear that Australians have been misled about the importance of private health insurance by governments and the private health sector.
“I guess they are used to being treated as a special case and getting bailed out by government.”
Health economist Stephen Duckett, the health program director at the Grattan Institute, said private hospitals were not the only sector forced to stand down staff and close doors.
“Many businesses have collapsed,” he said. “The question is, should private hospitals be treated any differently from any other industry and get any extra support? I haven’t seen an argument from private hospitals about why, if staff are stood down now, they wouldn’t be available in a few weeks when they are needed, so it’s not like this is permanent. I just haven’t seen an argument aside from them making statements designed to pressure the government and attract public sympathy.”
He said the sector should not be provided with any financial relief from government until they were called in to assist with the Covid-19 response.
“I would hope that by now contractual arrangements are in place so they can swing into action when public hospital system risks being overwhelmed and that’s when they should be paid by government,” Duckett said.
Consumers Health Forum CEO Leanne Wells said in times of crisis the public and private sectors must work together.
“To reduce what we know is going to be mounting pressure on public hospitals and to assure consumers our system’s capacity is being optimised, we urge the government and private hospitals to work together to ensure that private infrastructure and workforce, rather than being shutdown and stood down, is deployed as part of the community-wide campaign to fight the virus,” she said.