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‘The worst possible time’: Millions of dollars sliced from community health

‘The worst possible time’: Millions of dollars sliced from community health

Melissa Cunningham
16 April 2023

Millions of dollars in state government funding will be slashed from Victoria’s community health sector, including cuts to crucial preventative health services targeting soaring rates of vaping among young people and the obesity epidemic.

The cuts, which are expected to strip up to 15 per cent of the budget for 45 of the state’s 81 community health organisations, have sparked condemnation from public health sector leaders, who say the measures are “foolish and shortsighted”.

Dozens of chief executives from community health organisations were called without warning on Friday afternoon by health department bureaucrats, urging them to brace for funding cuts in the coming financial year.

The heads of state government departments have been ordered to detail plans to cut their budgets by 10 per cent without harming “front-line services”. The push ahead of the May 23 state budget comes as the government struggles to offset a multibillion-dollar financial hit linked to rising interest rates, with the state’s net debt topping $100 billion for the first time at the end of 2022.

Victorian Healthcare Association acting CEO Juan Paolo Legaspi said he feared job losses also loomed for the affected health services and said senior staff at the organisations were left devastated.

“They feel sick about the job losses and the impact this will have on vulnerable people in their local communities, as well as the entire health system,” he said.

“This is not the right time to cut funding to programs that help people stay well and out of our stretched hospital system.”

Melbourne’s Access Health and Community CEO Anna Robinson said her service was waiting for final confirmation from the department but was preparing cuts of up to 15 per cent to its preventative health budget.

She said this threatened the future of programs aimed at educating young people and their parents about the dangers of vaping, and inclusive sport services run by the centre for children with disabilities.

Smoking rates are at their lowest levels in decades, but the rapid uptake of vaping – especially by young people – in Australia has alarmed experts, along with a worrying rise in black market vapes online and at hundreds of convenience stores around the country.

The organisation, which has onsite GPs, also provides support for adults with disabilities, Victorians with mental health issues and aged care services.

“We hear from parents and schools all the time that they’re extremely concerned about vaping,” she said. “We’ve got communities that are deeply worried about the fact that their kids can’t participate in sport because the sport sports clubs aren’t disability inclusive. This is going to have a really devastating impact for us.”

Public Health Association of Australia CEO Terry Slevin said while he did not know the details of the proposed cuts, he was shocked by any move to reduce health funding in Victoria and urged the government to reconsider.

“The disgracefully low investment in public and preventive health is not sustainable,” he said. “Now is the worst possible time to reduce funding in public and preventive health.”

“I hope that these announcements are wrong and the Victorian government would not be so foolish as to reduce its already under-investment in health prevention.”

Slevin said reducing funding for programs that prevented chronic diseases did not make “any health or economic sense”.

While it is understood the cuts are in the millions of dollars, the exact figures remain unclear. The government did not provide this information, despite requests from The Sunday Age.

In a statement, a Victorian government spokesman denied the cuts were part of cost-saving measures for the incoming health budget in May. He said the changes in funding were elements of last year’s budget that were only being implemented now.

“They do not represent a cut to health services,” he said.

However, this has been disputed by chief executives at community health organisations, including Robinson, who said she and her counterparts were blindsided by the calls on Friday.

“This was the first time that we were aware that any cuts were even proposed,” she said.

Robinson said it was her understanding that the cuts would be made from a more than $30 million pool of funding set aside to tackle chronic diseases such as obesity and for preventative health programs.

Community Health First, a lobby group of 24 independent community health services in Victoria that is pushing the government to increase investment in the sector, criticised the decision as short-sighted. The group is calling for the proposed cuts to be reversed.

“It will reduce health promotion spending now, but will ultimately result in increased costs elsewhere in the health system in years to come,” a spokesman for the group said.

It is estimated more than 550,000 avoidable presentations to Victorian emergency departments could have been diverted had primary or community healthcare been available, according to a recent report by the Productivity Commission.

Read the full article on The Age website here:

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