$77m bill for casual doctors

NEXT time you get a doctor's bill and your heart skips at the price, spare a thought for the health service - their bill was more than $77 million.

NSW Auditor-General Peter Achterstraat released an assessment of the health service last week, which found that visiting medical officers (VMOs) cost the North Coast Area Health Service (NCAHS) almost $78 million last year.

The bill for VMOs has been revealed at a time when a spokesperson for NCAHS said the service is in the process of reducing its staffing levels by 400 full-time equivalents.

The local bill for casual doctors has contributed to a public hospital budget blow out of more than half a billion dollars, with the Auditor-General claiming the higher usage of VMOs results from difficulties in attracting full-time specialists.

The $77 million bill added to a $40 million operating deficit for NCAHS, according to figures from the Auditor-General.

Australian Medical Association NSW president, Dr Brian Morton, told Fairfax that regional hospitals would not survive without VMOs, with some hospitals flying in specialists from interstate and even overseas to fill shifts.

But the cost of VMOs may be worth it, with the Auditor-General also finding that the average length of stay in the North Coast area remains amongst the lowest in the state and the service met or exceeded the Department's benchmarks for timeliness in treating emergency patients in three of the five triage categories. The VMO bill couldn't have come at a worse time for NSW Health, with the Department coming under fire recently for owing creditors almost double what it did last year.

The State Opposition claim NCAHS has more than $12 million debt from more than 10,000 unpaid bills, figures NCAHS dispute by claiming they have reduced the amount of creditor payments that are over benchmark since the Opposition requested the figures under Freedom of Information.

But Mr Achterstraat said the amount owed by the Health Department is a real concern for small businesses working with the department and especially those working with hospitals.

“The NSW Department of Health spends more than $13 billion annually, they must have sound financial processes to make best use of these funds,” he said.

A spokesperson for NCAHS said the service is reducing its expenditure and increasing revenue in an attempt to balance the

budget.



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