A much-needed $14.2 million health facility that includes 22 new beds for mentally ill patients has sat idle since construction was completed almost seven months ago.
The Community Care Unit at Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital was completed last August and Austin Health expected it would be open by November.
Management blamed the delay on a protracted industrial dispute with the Health and Community Services Union over staffing arrangements, and said the facility would open on April 22.
Austin Health chief executive Dr Brendan Murphy said he was disappointed about the delay and that there was significant demand for the service, which provides clinical residential rehabilitation for people with enduring mental illnesses.
”There is a very significant demand for this sort of transitional facility, which helps people who have had a significant mental illness transition right back into the community, ” he said.
The union took Austin Health to Fair Work Australia in July to resolve issues around staffing arrangements for the facility – with the union expressing concerns about the contracting-out of staff and a reduction in clinical staff.
An agreement was reached at the end of October and Dr Murphy said other issues with the union were not resolved until January. He said staff had now been employed and there were no funding issues.
State Labor MP for Ivanhoe Anthony Carbines said the Napthine government should have stepped in to fix the situation, and described the facility as a ”Yes Minister hospital”.
”This 22-bed residential centre for vulnerable people with a mental illness has sat idle for nine months because of the Napthine government’s neglect and mismanagement of the project. Blaming mental health nurses is predictable.”
He accused the government of neglect and mismanagement, and said mentally ill patients were forced to seek treatment in emergency departments and acute beds because the facility was not open.
Austin Health is the only metropolitan health service that does not have an operational community care unit for people with enduring mental illness. Capital funding for the building was announced by the former Brumby government and, in 2012, Mental Health Minister Mary Wooldridge announced recurrent funding for staff and other operational costs.
HACSU secretary Lloyd Williams expressed concern about the time it took to resolve the dispute, saying he expected management would have quickly opened the service once an agreement was reached.
”We had concerns about staffing and we settled those concerns a long time ago and we still don’t know when it will be open. Other issues we raised should not have prevented them from opening the much-needed facility.” He said it was unfair for the health service to blame the union because an agreement was reached in October.
Mr Williams said the delay was unacceptable and the hospital had either had trouble recruiting staff, or had decided to delay the opening of boost their bottom line – a claim denied by the health service.
The government did not want to comment.
This article first appeared on ‘The Age’ on 20 March 2014.