Minister won’t sack health bosses over unpaid bills

THE Health Minister, John Della Bosca, has refused to sack any of the chief executives in charge of the eight area health services and the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, despite all but two failing to meet NSW Health’s strict creditor payment policy.

The Area Performance Agreement for chief executives says paying all creditors within the benchmark 45 days is a key performance indicator.

In 2006, the State Government promised to tighten controls to ensure that creditors are paid on time after an Auditor-General’s report found the common practice of not paying bills was leading to the suspension of services, delays in supplying goods and additional time wasted in trying to have the orders filled.

The then-health minister, John Hatzistergos, insisted that area health service chief executives would be held personally accountable for unpaid bills.

"I’ve made it quite clear to area health chief executives … that their obligations and their performance is going to be measured by the extent to which they comply with the creditor payments policy," he said.

But despite figures released by NSW Health on Wednesday showing there was $117.5 million in overdue invoices across the system at the end of this month, not one senior bureaucrat has been held accountable.

In a clear backflip on his predecessor’s promise, Mr Della Bosca said yesterday: "It’s not about blaming individuals. I’m making everybody in the system accountable [and] the only way you can do this is by sharing the responsibility."

However, the chief executive of Greater Western Area Health Service, Claire Blizard, told the Herald she was ashamed to walk the streets of Dubbo after meat, fruit, vegetables and drug supplies to scores of hospitals had been cut off after bills went unpaid for months.

As doctors in the state’s west threatened to walk off the job at 5pm today, Mr Della Bosca authorised an emergency $1.8 million payroll run last night to cover months of outstanding invoices from numerous visiting medical officers in Dubbo, Bathurst and Orange. "We’re on top of that problem," he said.

Mr Della Bosca said the Greater Western service covered an area the size of Germany and about 100 health facilities, which had led to the difficulties in paying bills.

He dismissed calls for a return to local hospital boards but did not rule out a federal takeover of health. "The health system for a few generations has been a joint enterprise by Commonwealth and state governments and clearly that … has worked well when you consider the entire postwar period, and that relationship has led to us having one of the best health systems in the world."

The Australian Medical Association’s NSW president, Brian Morton, said a number of doctors had already resigned from the public hospital system because they felt they could not offer safe care. "Inability to pay suppliers is symptomatic of deeper problems and the ultimate concern is the welfare of patients," he said.

The chairwoman of the medical staff council at Orange Base Hospital, Ruth Arnold, said doctors’ hands were tied. They could insist on the area health service paying interest if their bills were not settled in 45 days but the "service is so strapped for cash that we would rather the money be spent on patient care".

She said some doctors had been paid since October but it was unacceptable that they had to make a fuss before they got their money.