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Overcrowded system struggles to keep up


Julie Robotham HEALTH EDITOR

NSW HEALTH will aim low next year, with budget figures revealing it expects total treatment capacity to be flat.

Despite a four-year health reform infusion of $1.2 billion from the Commonwealth, the system is still suffering from overcrowding.

Ambulance response times are expected to deteriorate and cancer screening participation will stagnate.

The 8.6 per cent increase for the portfolio – to $16.4 billion – is lower than some recent years, though the ageing population and costlier medical technologies ensure health expenditure continues to outstrip inflation, consuming one-third of the budget.

Capital works, to address the state's crumbling hospital stock, will receive a significant boost of more than $900 million.

But recurrent spending on basic inpatient, outpatient and emergency care, as well as mental health and public health programs, will languish with a 6.8 per cent increase.

An Australian Medical Association NSW spokesman, Brian Morton, described the commitments as an "effective cut". Another $400 million would be needed, he said, just to maintain hospital services at their current level.

The Minister for Health, Carmel Tebbutt, praised the extra $117 million allocation to emergency departments, as hospitals anticipate 80,000 more attendances – a 3 per cent increase.

But the figures show the proportion of people admitted to hospital after attending emergency has plateaued since 2007. Next year's target of 20.6 per cent is the same as this year's updated estimate – and lower than this year's target of 22 per cent.

The figure suggests hospital crowding may be blocking admissions, as many run at or beyond safe capacity.

Overnight hospital admissions overall are expected to rise by 2.5 per cent, while day-only treatments will rise 3 per cent.

Country ambulance stations will receive $24.7 million, but the government still expects the average response time of ambulances to increase to 10.6 minutes, from 9.8 minutes three years before.

The number of public dental treatments will rise to 2.7 million, from this year's expected 2.6 million.

But both are still lower than the two previous years.

Spending in the underfunded mental health sector will increase by 8 per cent.

The proportion of women who have a mammogram every two years was static this year at 53 per cent and next year's target is just 54 per cent.

Richard Matthews, deputy director-general of NSW Health, said the life-saving service was screening more women, but the proportion remained level because more women were entering the target 50 to 69 age range.

Total spending on screening and other population health programs will grow 3 per cent.

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