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AMA urges federal government to fix ‘broken’ health system as NSW paramedics protest shortages

Messages chalked on NSW ambulances
NSW paramedics have chalked their ambulances to protest against working conditions. Photograph: Brett Simpson/Australian Paramedics Association

The head of the Australian Medical Association says the federal government must “stop the blame game” and step in to relieve state and territory health systems buckling under high demand.

The AMA president, Dr Omar Khorshid, said the federal government had to “accept its responsibility for our national health system” and “sit down” with the states to resolve the issues during an appearance on Weekend Sunrise on Saturday.

“Having a federal government actually accept its responsibility for our national health system, for the fact that all parts of the system are all interlinked, and they’re broken at the moment. That would be a great start,” Khorshid said.

The comments come as roughly 2,500 of the New South Wales’ 3,800 paramedics are taking part in the action to protest ambulance ramping and staffing shortages in the state.

Paramedics have chalked their ambulances to protest working conditions and are refusing to leave their home stations to cover roster gaps elsewhere, refusing to fill out forms relating to key performance indicators, and refusing to bill patients.

The industrial action was originally planned to take place from Monday and last for two weeks but the NSW government applied to the industrial relations commissioner to stop it after the Australian Paramedics Association gave notice.

NSW Ambulance said “the safety of patients is our top priority” and there were “plans in place to minimise disruption to the community”.

“NSW Ambulance will continue its open discussions to mitigate any potential impacts on patients and the public should be assured that despite the industrial action, all paramedics will continue to immediately respond to life threatening medical emergencies,” it said.

NSW Ambulance said 750 paramedics and control centre staff had been recruited under a surge plan with staffing and final postings to be determined “over the coming months”.

The premier, Dominic Perrottet, said on Friday that the June budget would bring more funding for paramedics.

“[That funding is] incredibly important because they do an amazing job on our frontline every single day,” he said.

The Australian Paramedics Association delegate Brett Simpson, who has been working as a paramedic for 13 years, said the situation was getting worse “week on week” and that a fix was needed now.

“Being told by the premier that we have to wait until the budget announcement for some sort of answer to the crisis – it is beyond belief,” he said.

Prior to the pandemic Simpson said the service received around 3,300 triple zero calls a day but that number had increased to between 3,800 and 4,000 calls for help. On some days he said that number spikes closer to 5,000.

“It is genuinely frightening,” he said. “It’s not unusual to see over 300 triple zero calls across metropolitan Sydney waiting to be answered.

“It’s taking 30 or even 60 minutes to even find an ambulance to put on the case.”

On Thursday he said there were zero available ambulances in the greater Newcastle area, the Central Coast and the Illawarra while there were eight available in metropolitan Sydney.

According to the Productivity Commission there were 48.6 ambulance officers, including both students and qualified paramedics, per 100,000 residents in NSW.

This is compared to 61.7 per 100,000 in Victoria, 71.3 in Queensland and 61.1 in South Australia. The only state with lower coverage was Western Australia with 34 ambulance officers per 100,000.

With the Omicron strain of Covid-19 now endemic, and the long-anticipated flu season roaring back, health systems around the country are struggling.

Some jurisdictions such as Victoria have taken steps to change the way triage takes place to reduce pressure on the system, but the Victorian Ambulance Union general secretary, Danny Hill, said the situation was the worst he had seen.

“Our response times are blowing out,” Hill said. “They’re the worst they’ve ever been by far and with the flu season coming it’s not looking like it’s going to get any better any time soon.”

Hill said on Thursday a spike in demand coincided with an outage in the computer-aided dispatch system (CAD) forcing operators to switch to a pen and paper system for allocating ambulances during the half hour it took to get it fixed.

The situation resulted in the ambulance service going to “code red”.

“We had 70 patients pending, which meant 70 patients who required an ambulance,” Hill said.

He said the health system was in crisis but he did not believe any state or territory was “handling the situation comfortably at the moment”.

“It’s a very scary thing to think about,” he said. “You want to know that when, at the time you need to call an ambulance, you’ll get one and you’ll get life-saving care.”