FUNDING promised by former treasurer Chris Bowen prior to the 2013 Federal Election to help retain most of the services and staff at the Brisbane Sexual Health Clinic was denied soon after the election of the Coalition Government.
Prior to the election, then-treasurer Bowen made the announcement at the clinic on Roma St to provide funding required to keep “most” of the staff and services offered by Biala’s Clinic 1 (general STI testing and treatment) and 2 (a specific HIV care centre), for one year into 2014/15.
Metro North Health and Hospital Service (MNHHS) attracted criticism in March last year when it announced the closure of the entire Biala clinic. However, after intervention by the Ministerial Advisory Committee into HIV/AIDS and an independent audit, the MNHHS said that it would retain HIV services provided by Clinic 2.
The Star Observer understands that the decision to not provide the allocated Biala funding was made along with a series of cuts in order to rein in spending.
When announced, the decision to provide the “emergency funding” was confirmed by Bowen as already budgeted for but not an election promise by the former Rudd Government.
The denied funding decision subsequently resulted in MNHHS adhering to its revised plan of cutting back services and staff at Biala to those only required by Clinic 2. Since October 2013, staffing has been gradually reduced from around 42 to nine.
News of the staff reductions and departure of Clinic 2’s director, Dr John Patten mid last month — a position that the MNHHS said they would not be replacing due to the “reorganisation” of staffing — have once again brought the debate over Biala’s importance and role in tackling STIs as well as HIV and AIDS back into the spotlight.
Federal opposition spokeswoman on health Catherine King urged the Coalition Government to follow through with the funding as it was compromising the services offered at Biala.
“This service was budgeted for by Labor in government and it is Tony Abbott’s decision not to fund it. As the only free sexual health clinic in the region it provides a vitally important service. The funding should be reinstated immediately,” King told the Star Observer.
The Queensland Nurses Union (QNU) have accused the government in “resuscitating the blame game” and resorting to “push and shoving tactics” to have their way.
“The community is sick of these political games played by Liberal National Party on a state and federal basis. They are losing faith in the LNP’s ability to deliver frontline services and effectively manage the ongoing health care debate,” QNU secretary Beth Mohle told the Star Observer.
The MNHHS has said it was still committed to providing comprehensive HIV services to Brisbane.
“Specialist HIV services will continue to be delivered from our Biala city service as well as other outreach services, including Redcliffe,” MNHHS’ Jo Walters told the Star Observer.
“We will also provide treatment for complex and unresolved sexually-transmitted infections for patients referred by GPs or nurse practitioners.”
Despite reducing staff to around nine following the 2013 election, MNHHS revealed during a meeting held on March 26 that an additional 7.85 full time positions would be “retained”, including five clinical nurses, one advanced pharmacy assistant and one administrative assistant — bringing staffing at Biala up to around 17.
The Star Observer understands that the MNHHS identified issues during the implementation of their staffing changes from last year and decided they needed to maintain a higher level of clinical staff than originally proposed.
When asked directly why Biala was being boosted by 7.85 full time positions, Walters denied that staffing levels had increased.
“Staffing has not increased. Following a decision by the Metro North Board in March, patients will be seen based on clinical need rather than place of residence, so staffing will be retained at current levels,” she said.
“As a significant proportion of the patients accessing the Sexual Health and HIV Service live in other Hospital and Health Services, retaining staff to support these higher patient numbers is required.”
Walters denied that the increase in positions suggested they had underestimated how many positions were required to adhere to their original plan of scaling back services at the clinic as per an independent Deloitte audit last year.
“The reduced staffing numbers announced last year aligned to recommendations made in the Deloitte report, including the transfer of non-MNHHS patients to services closer to their homes,” Walter said.
Local HIV specialist Dr Wendell Rosevear, who has long championed the role that he believed Biala played in tackling HIV and AIDS care and treatment in Brisbane, welcomed the increase in staff but expressed concern about recent layoff of doctors at the clinic.
“I welcome the reassessment to increase Biala staff… but I lament the three doctors who lost their jobs. They are not just numbers, they are encyclopaedias of Sexual Health knowledge and wisdom,” Dr Rosevear told the Star Observer.
Dr Rosevear said that he believed the government did not fully understand the significance of the role that Biala played in Brisbane’s LGBTI and wider communities.
“I am sad that [they] don’t see Biala as a treasure in our Sexual Health Strategy. It was more than a safe testing and treating centre, it was an educational centre of excellence for nurses, medical students, doctors and Sexual Health Physicians for the whole state,” he said.
“Queenslanders need to reclaim Queensland Health.”
Despite the Abbott Government decision to not continue Biala’s funding as budgeted by Labor, any person that was being treated at Biala that goes to a GP, will have some — or in the case of bulk billing, all — of their cost of visiting the doctor paid for by Medicare. This suggests the Queensland Government has successfully diverted a state-based cost to the Federal Government.
The Star Observer contacted federal Health Minister Peter Dutton’s office for an explanation regarding the $3.5 million funding. The Star Observer also contacted Treasurer Joe Hockey’s office after being told by Bowen that it was their responsibility. There were repeated attempts to gain comments from both Dutton and Hockey’s offices, but no response was provided at the time of print.