Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has accused the Queensland Government of putting the community’s health at risk as the controversial decision to severely cut services at the Brisbane Sexual Health Clinic attracts widespread criticism from medical experts, specialist physicians and other politicians.
Last month the Liberal National Party (LNP) government announced it would continue to allow the Metro North Hospital and Health Service (MNHHS) to ‘seriously downgrade’ services from the ‘Biala’ free sexual health clinic in central Brisbane (pictured), with staffing levels to be slashed from 42 jobs to ten and financial responsibilities moved from the state healthcare system to private GPs and Medicare Locals.
Rudd described the LNP’s decision to continue to allow “just plain wrong on so many levels” before accusing the Newman Government and Health Minister Lawrence Springborg of using the MNHHS as ‘cover’ to continue cutting services from the public health front-line based on an audit from an accounting firm.
The audit, compiled by accounting company Deloittes, recommends cutting STI services at Biala’s Clinic 1 despite acknowledging that treatment of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is a vital component of HIV testing. However, the audit does support the MNHHS’ decision to retain all services to Biala’s HIV specialist centre, Clinic 2.
Rudd cited fears expressed by Australian Medical Association Queensland President Dr Christian Rowan, Sexual Health Society of Queensland President Judith Dean and the Royal College of Physicians over the risks in downgrading Biala.
“It would seem that the Newman Government and the MNHHS are willing to accept the advice of accountants about the medical care for HIV patients and ignore the medical opinions of prominent health experts. This is just more evidence of the LNP’s addiction to austerity which completely ignores the needs of our community,” Rudd said.
Federal Minister for Health Tanya Plibersek labelled the decision as “a disgraceful move” that “winds the clock back decades on sexual health in Queensland”.
“This is hardly surprising given Campbell Newman has cut $3 billion out of health in Queensland and sacked more than 4000 health workers,” Plibersek said.
Queensland Opposition Leader Anastasia Palaszczuk and Shadow Health Minister Jo-Ann Miller also condemned the cutbacks.
“The decision runs the risk of seeing rates of sexually transmitted infections rise dramatically…people most at risk of contracting STIs now have nowhere to turn and may well choose not to go to private GPs to be tested,” Miller told the Star Observer.
“The loss of the majority of testing and treatment services at Biala means people will not come forward and will risk their own health and the health of others – it is that simple. I have never seen a more irresponsible approach to sexual health from a Minister charged with keeping Queenslanders healthy.”
“What Lawrence Springborg fails to understand is that in the sensitive area of STIs, many people are uncomfortable talking to their doctors and prefer to go to a specialised clinic as they have been able to do in Brisbane for decades — even under the Bjelke-Petersen regime,” she added.
Miller’s comments were echoed by Greens leader Christine Milne, who expressed concern for people from rural and regional Queensland whom the Deloittes audit showed utilise Biala’s services in great numbers.
“I speak to many people who come to the major cities in order to access medical help, whether it be general or sexual health issues, because they want anonymity and non-judgemental care.” Milne told the Star Observer.
“They live in communities where the GP is well-known and they feel they can’t openly discuss deeply personal issues with someone so familiar to them and the community. That’s why Biala not only serves Brisbane but people from all over the state. The LNP assume that everyone has access to and can afford a GP, and that everybody has a comfortable enough relationship with their GP. We all know that is not always the case.
“It is systematic of the meanness of spirit of Campbell Newman…yes it’s important to keep on the services for HIV but you’ve got to make sure that people that are vulnerable or worried or may have symptoms can actually go in and confidentially talk to someone.” Milne said.
One of Biala’s specialist doctors, Dr Theo Van Lieshout, said that the cutback of services to rein in a budget sends a dangerous message.
“If it goes through every other sexual-health service in Australia is at risk, because it’s a quick grab for money without any consideration for the long-term implications,” Dr Van Lieshout told Fairfax.
“The unintended consequences of this have not been thought through. The Minister needs to go to the MNHHS and say: ‘Reverse this decision’.”
You can sign a petition created by the Queensland Nurses Union to help save Biala here.
The state Health Minister’s office was contacted for comment but failed to reply by time of publication.