Four health services in western Victoria have announced plans to merge and create an overarching new medical service for the region’s residents. 

Ballarat Health Service (BHS), Wimmera Health Care Group, Stawell Regional Health and Edenhope and District Memorial Hospital will ask the state health department to approve the proposed merger, despite concerns raised by some local politicians and community members.

Marie Aitken, board chair of Wimmera Health Care Group, said a new amalgamated service would improve healthcare for residents in an area of the state that faces some of the worst health outcomes. 

Under the proposed merger there would be no net job losses or loss of services, a guarantee of local representation on the board of the new entity and a reduction in the need to travel for healthcare, a statement from the four hospitals said.

Wimmera Base Hospital in Horsham, western Victoria, is now run by Wimmera Health Care Group. (

Supplied: Wimmera Health Care Group

)

Community against a merger

A petition organised by Horsham-based Nationals MP Emma Kealy, a former CEO of the Edenhope hospital, has so far gained more than 5,000 signatures from people rejecting a merger.

Ms Kealy said it was “pretty clear” from the response that a merger with the Ballarat hospital was not what the local community wanted.

She said she feared staffing shortages in Horsham could be exacerbated by the merger, if staff were required to move between health campuses to manage shortages at other locations. 

The outside of Ballarat Base hospital.
BHS, which runs Ballarat Base Hospital, says it has made substantial progress since the report was commissioned.(

ABC News: Dominic Cansdale

)

Rhian Jones, board chair of Stawell Regional Health, said there had been concerns raised about staff having to move around the region. 

She said the merger could also benefit staff by giving them greater opportunities to improve their skills and seek career promotions.

Were other models explored?

A government spokesperson said any process to amalgamate health services must include staff and community consultation, as well as an assessment of the benefits a merger would provide.

Ms Kealy said there had been no investigation of other models in the lead-up to today’s announcement.

But Ms Aitken rejected that, and said other options had been explored, including a partnership model, but they would not deliver the improvements the health services were seeking.

“Partnership can only take us so far and it’s a really slow process,” she said.

A woman in jeans and a white top stands in front of a pen filled with sheep amid grassy hills.
Horsham-based Nationals MP Emma Kealy says the petition with 5,000 signatures shows local residents do not support the merger. (

Supplied: Emma Kealy

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Ms Kealy also questioned why local healthcare providers would want to partner with BHS, given the recent Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) report into patient care.

The audit looked at the systems and processes each hospital had in place to ensure staff and patient safety. 

The VAGO report found BHS wasn’t doing enough to improve patient safety. 

While none of the other health services responded to this point, Natalie Reiter, board chair of BHS, said the VAGO audit showed the merger would be beneficial to improving how clinical governance was monitored. 

“The economies of scale one gets on things like clinical governance monitoring can’t be understated,” Ms Reiter said.

The decision on the proposed merger lies with Health Minister Martin Foley.

A spokesperson from the department of health said the merger proposal had not yet been submitted to the department for consideration, so no decisions had been made.



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By EDONS