HUNTER New England Health has denied claims that Kurri Kurri Hospital's emergency department could close at the end of the year, and said "no decisions" have been made on the future delivery of services in the area following the completion of the new Maitland Hospital.
Local management held a meeting at the hospital on Wednesday to address staff concerns about the "misinformation" circulated in an anonymous letter in the Hunter this week.
The letter claimed the hospital's emergency department (ED) would be closed from December 31, 2019, and that the entire hospital would close upon the completion of the new $470 million Maitland Hospital.
"Budget and services are to be given to Maitland Hospital and Cessnock Hospital," the letter said. "Kurri Kurri community will just to be told to access services in Maitland and Cessnock."
The letter also claimed there was a "secret closure" of beds to help the hospital meet its new nursing hour requirements, and that no further staff - including medical officers - would be recruited to fill vacant positions at the hospital.
Remaining staff would be given extra duties, it said.
Clayton Barr, the Member for Cessnock, said it was a relief to hear the Kurri's "modest" ED would not close as it played "a really important role in the entire Hunter New England Health cog".
"I would think local, state and federal politicians - collectively - would bear arms against Hunter New England Health and go to war over that issue if that were the case," he said. "We will not allow our communities to have these resources taken away from them - particularly given that in Cessnock and Kurri, our hospitals were fundamentally built by coal miners 100 years ago. It is part of our heritage and tradition - so we are not going to let them go."
But he said there were still concerns about safe staffing levels at Kurri Kurri Hospital.
He said the ED at Kurri relied on doctors being on call, day and night.
"Historically, there has been about five - or as many as seven - on that list of on-call doctors, and that is currently down to only two doctors," he said. "Those two doctors can't do the whole schedule - so there is multiple times when there is actually no doctor available on call at Kurri emergency to attend to somebody.
"In this month alone there is potentially about 17 shifts where a doctor is not available to be rostered on.
"That's a real worry for the community.
"It is putting lives at risk.
"The word on the street, in the community, is that a number of doctors have put their name forward, but they have been told there was no work available."
Mr Barr said earlier this week there was not enough nursing staff to cover patients at the hospital.
Mr Barr said the anonymous letter seemed to have been put forward by someone who had a "significant" amount of access to information. He said they may not have put their name to it due to fears for their job.
We will not allow our communities to have these resources taken away from them.Clayton Barr, Member for Cessnock
"Then at the other end, we have the response from Hunter New England Health," he said. "My experience tells me that somewhere between the two stories is the truth. The truth is probably a mix of both messages.
"If you don't give people the information, then people are going to join the dots in their own way.
"If we haven't had our doctors replaced, if they are closing down beds, and we currently don't have enough nurses for the beds we've got - and we've been waiting months for them to recruit extra nurses, and they haven't ... If you join all of those dots - as well as the idea that there is a new Maitland Hospital coming online with a rumour that it could have an impact on Kurri - you join those dots and you come up with a scary and dire prospect for the Kurri hospital.
"It is no wonder people out here are worried and scared.
"We haven't had it satisfactorily explained why we shouldn't be worried - and that comes down to the lack of recruitment of staff."
Hunter New England Health's Lower Hunter Sector general manager, Di Peers, said the development of the new Maitland Hospital gave the district an opportunity to look at how it delivered health services in the Lower Hunter.
"This process is ongoing and there have been no decisions made about future delivery of services in the area," she said. "We are committed to consulting with our staff and other key stakeholders throughout this process."
Ms Peers said there would be no loss of staff or positions from Kurri Kurri Hospital.
"The district continuously monitors activity and staffing numbers at Kurri Kurri Hospital to ensure the safe delivery of patient care," she said. "If activity increases and we need to open more beds, additional nursing staff will be rostered on."
Ms Peers said inpatient wards often had seasonal downturns in activity, which meant they may alter the number of beds after winter.
"The Kurri Kurri Hospital Medical Ward was staffed for 6.0 Nursing Hours Per Patient Day (NHPPD), and was rostered in accordance with the Public Health System Nurses' and Midwives' (State) award," she said.
The district was "actively recruiting" to nursing positions at Kurri Kurri.
"We will also begin recruiting to the currently-vacant medical position in the rehabilitation unit soon," she said. "The NSW Government is investing in a record 8300 extra frontline staff across NSW over the next four years. Between mid-2012 and mid-2019 the Hunter New England Local Health District increased its workforce by an additional 1,335 full time equivalent staff - an increase of 12.7 per cent including 203 more doctors, 722 more nurses and midwives, and 123 more allied health staff."
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