Ambulance staff required immediately: union

CANNOT COMMIT: Health Minister Stephen Wade was unable to commit to any additional staff in the Limestone Coast.

By Raquel Mustillo

THE state’s ambulance union has rejected State Government claims the region is well supported by volunteer paramedics, with a Limestone Coast-based representative estimating less than 5pc of volunteers are active.

Ambulance Employees Association Limestone Coast councillor Andrew Shouksmith has renewed calls to immediately instate 20 full-time ambulance staff in the region to address declining volunteer numbers and increasing workloads.

Mr Shouksmith praised the contribution of South Australian Ambulance Service (SAAS) volunteer paramedics, but said the group was overrepresented by individuals aged 70 and over.

“In the Limestone Coast in particular, we have huge difficulty in recruiting and retaining young people in the ambulance service,” he said.

“SAAS would be lucky if 3pc of people who are on their books have actually turned up for a shift in the last three months.

“Every time they drop a volunteer crew, it means another volunteer crew has got to cover that patch and therefore our own patch gets less coverage.”

The Ambulance Employees Association – which represents salaried ambulance officers – previously told The Border Watch just five crews operate in the Limestone Coast and cover distances of up to 20,000km2.

The union said systematic staffing issues had been exacerbated in recent years, with workloads increasing in the region by up to 7pc per annum while resourcing levels remain the same.

Mr Shouksmith struck back at a claim made by a State Government spokesperson saying the 24/7 paramedics were “well supported” by 160 volunteers.

“The volunteer numbers are dropping like a stone and they don’t have a plan b,” he said.

“SAAS will tell you they have been able to recruit 30 people over a period of time, but what they won’t tell you is that they lost 60 volunteers over the same period.”

A SA Ambulance Service spokesperson acknowledged the “challenges in maintaining optimum levels of volunteers”, citing the regions’ ageing population as well as “extremely low population growth”.

“We are focused on finding new and improved ways of doing business, our Graduated Paramedic Pathway recently provided two volunteer ambulance officers in Mount Gambier with the exciting opportunity to further their skills so that they stay in the area, upskilled as paramedics,” the spokesperson said.

“This is in addition to continued recruitment drives and local activity to boost and retain volunteers in the region.

“SAAS actively reviews the need for additional resources in all country locations and is working closely with Local Health Networks and primary health care providers to identify opportunities for broader service delivery opportunities.

“A great example has been the addition of Community Paramedics in Robe.”

The spokesperson said the Rural SA Ambulance Services Workforce Plan outlined a number of strategies to grow and strengthen the regional workforce.

However, Mr Shouksmith said the immediate solution was to increase the level of staff paramedics as opposed to encouraging more volunteers.

“The issues we have are because of resourcing and the inability to secure adequate funding for the country,” he said.

“We know Adelaide is in a hell of a mess but we have a problem as well and pouring every cent into the city is not going to resolve our problems.”

During this week’s tour of the region, Health Minister Stephen Wade would not commit to an additional 20 ambulance officers due to him not being prepared for the question and being “caught off guard”.

Mr Wade did however say the government was committed to an 74 ambulance officers across the state – none of which will located in the Limestone Coast.

Shadow Health Minister Chris Picton said the State Government’s failure to address the Limestone Coast resourcing issue was “yet another example that this city-centric government isn’t focused on delivering the health care needs for people in the country”.

Mr Picton said the Labor Party would outline a specific policy for the Limestone Coast and its health care needs ahead of the election, including additional measures for ambulance officers.

Member for MacKillop Nick McBride said he was in discussions with the union and was attempting to find a solution to the staffing issue.

Mr McBride said the shortage of doctors at the Naracoorte Hospital was among the biggest impairments for the ambulance service, with paramedics required to divert patients to Mount Gambier in the absence of a medical practitioner in Naracoorte.