Bed closures to 'cause ambulance delays'

PARAMEDICS fear patients will face ambulance delays in coming months as hospitals continue to close dozens of beds, including emergency department services, because of budget cuts.

As the tally of bed closures reached about 325 across Victoria's hospital system yesterday, Ambulance Victoria expressed concern about the effect on its services and patients calling for help.

Ambulance Victoria's general manager of regional services Tony Walker said any shortage of hospital beds affected the flow of patients through emergency departments and their ability to take patients from paramedics who needed to be freed up for other cases.

''Time taken to transfer patients to beds at hospitals can impact on our ability to leave the hospital and therefore respond to triple-0 calls,'' he said.

''Any delays, including bed closures, which affect our capacity to serve the community, are a serious concern and we will obviously be monitoring the impact of these closures on emergency access very closely.''

Unexpected Commonwealth budget cuts and a lack of state government funding to fill the gap have caused hospitals to close at least 325 beds including intensive care, surgical and emergency services.

On Thursday, Peninsula Health became the latest to reveal it had closed 10 ''short-stay'' beds in its Frankston Hospital emergency department. A spokesman said they would remain closed until Easter.

A spokesman for Austin Health said 11 acute hospital beds and five rehabilitation beds would close and that the planned opening of an additional intensive-care-unit bed would not go ahead. While elective surgery would be cut, the spokesman said ''emergency performance'' would also be affected.

Barwon Health chief executive David Ashbridge told staff this week he was closing 24 beds in Geelong Hospital's surgical and general medicine wards.

''I am confident that there will be no permanent job losses as a result of the temporary closure and hopefully there will be the opportunity to refurbish the ward during this period as well,'' he said in an email to staff.

Ballarat Base Hospital chief executive Andrew Rowe said he was closing eight beds until June 30 and had not replaced 25 recently departed staff.

The cuts follow a funding adjustment by the federal government based on new population data from last year's census, which meant Victoria had to repay $40 million from last financial year and weather a cut of $67 million this year. The adjustment, which coincides with Victorian government cuts of $616 million over six years, has caused a bitter dispute between state and federal governments.

The Victorian Healthcare Association predicts up to 750 jobs may be lost. Surgeons say waiting times for elective surgery may double in many cases.

Mr Walker said Ambulance Victoria was working closely with the government to minimise the time paramedics spent at hospitals and was referring patients with less serious needs to community health services to free up ambulances. ''This will assist in reducing unnecessary transports to emergency departments,'' he said.

A spokeswoman for Health Minister David Davis said he had met 75 of 86 health service board chairmen and women this week to discuss service cuts.

jmedew@theage.com.au

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