The newly elected NSW Labor government will begin drafting terms of reference for a royal commission into the state’s health services within weeks, having announced a surgical taskforce to tackle the state’s elective surgery waiting list.
Premier Chris Minns and Health Minister Ryan Park, who were both sworn into a skeleton cabinet on Tuesday ahead of the full ministry, made health the focus of their first formal day on the job.
After a midnight visit to meet staff at the emergency department in Westmead Hospital, Minns’ and Park’s first announcement after their swearing-in was to outline the taskforce.
NSW Labor campaigned heavily on healthcare and hospitals and committed to a royal commission after a landmark report from the Health Services Union (HSU) revealed a “chronic misallocation of resources and warped priorities” in healthcare funding.
The HSU report warned that patient complaints had increased 40 per cent since the start of the pandemic, and 144 per cent since 2011-12. Ten per cent of NSW patients seeking ambulances had also been forced to wait more than two hours between July to September 2022, it said.
Park said the preparatory work on a wide-ranging inquiry would begin as soon as possible.
“Over the coming weeks and months we will finalise the terms of reference and will make sure funding is allocated to commence this important work,” Park said.
“It’s a priority of mine because it will provide an opportunity to examine how we are allocating precious taxpayers’ dollars and whether we can do it better to ensure we are doing everything possible to deliver the best health services for the community.”
Minns said he chose to hold his first press conference as premier at Liverpool Hospital because “one of the most urgent needs” in NSW was healthcare.
The premier said almost 100,000 people were on elective surgery waiting lists in NSW as of the end of December, including more than 17,000 who had waited longer than the clinical guidelines recommended. This included 4000 children.
Minns said the new surgical taskforce would be modelled on one in New Zealand, which is overseen by a 10-person board.
“The taskforce will be charged with ensuring we make a real dent in the list, clearing the backlog and ensuring people are not left on the list longer than clinically recommended,” Minns said.
HSU boss Gerard Hayes said the government must provide funding for a royal commission in its inaugural budget in June if it is serious about holding the promised inquiry.
Hayes said there had been more than 20 major reports into sections of the health system over 40 years without substantial action, making an “overwhelming” case for a royal commission.
He said there needed to be a forensic examination of the state’s “$33 billion health spend”.
“I want to get to a point where we have an evidence-based increase. It’s going to be fit for purpose for the next 10 to 15 years,” Hayes said.
Hayes said only an inquiry with the powers of a royal commission would ensure that the entrenched problems around funding could be effectively exposed.
“I don’t want this to be just tick-a-box ticket because it will be a waste of time and I will go to war with them,” Hayes said.