Category Archives: Tim Leeuwenburg

Contract Negotiations (again!)

Well it seems that some country doctors in SA remain embroiled in dispute over on call contracts with Country Health SA.

The last contract expired in Nov 2011 and was supposed to be replaced by a contract offering improved terms for rural doctors who offer on call VMO services to public hospitals in addition to running their private practices. You can imagine the disappointment of many doctors when no contract materialised in Dec 2012. Protracted negotiations ensued between Country Health SA and both the Rural Doctors Association of SA and the AMA(SA).

As I understand it, the AMA(SA) advised their members not to sign as there was a failure to reach an acceptable outcome for members.

The RDASA continued to negotiate and reached a compromise of sorts in July 2012 (seven months after the previous contract expired). You can read a press release from them here.

The difficulty in the relationship revolves predominantly the tension between doctors running their own private practice and the need to service a public hospital run by CHSA. As workload in both primary care and hospital-based services increases, the impact of being on call for the hospital becomes increasingly negative on running a private practice.

Contract wins included 

  • a payment to recompense the impact of being called out of private practice clinic to attend hospital patients (note life-threatening emergencies excluded from this payment) and,
  • a payment to compensate missed clinic sessions the next day after a busy overnight on call (note only applies to admitted in-patients; A&E patients excluded).

Disappointments included

  • no increase in on call allowances
  • refusal to pay attending doctor through fee-for-service arrangements for WorkCover, motor vehicle accident or other non-Medicare compensable patients (such as overseas visitors). In a location such as Kangaroo Island where motor vehicle crashes involving overseas tourists are not uncommon, chasing bad debts for on call work is a hassle that doctors would rather do without.
  • continued situation where patients presenting to the public hospital with non-GP conditions needing A&E care (broken bones, lacerations, acute psychosis out-of-hours, forensic medical exam etc) are charged private fees as CHSA maintains that the doctor will only be paid for admitted patient services. Interestingly this situation does not occur interstate, with State Govt taking responsibility for provision of A&E services and paying doctors who are called to attend
  • a move by CHSA to insist that the responsibility for providing A&E services moves from the State Govt to one or more practices in each location, with practices required to continue cover even if doctor numbers decrease or practices withdraw.

As I understand it, existing ‘sweetheart’ deals offering better terms of service continue in rural SA and have been excluded from contract negotiations – these include locations such as Whyalla, Naracoorte, Mt Gambier, Riverland and Gawler. Suffice it to say that terms and conditions are considered more favourable than the contract offered to other doctors through the standard contract, recognising the particular needs of each location.

Several other rural locations are unhappy – the media report dissatisfaction in Victor Harbor, Snowtown-Clare, Quorn and Kangaroo Island. Millicent is rumoured to be in a similar position and there may well be others who have declined to sign the contract or remain unhappy with terms.

Locally on Kangaroo Island?

The doctors who provide A&E services on Kangaroo Island (through a single entity, Island Locums) have been allowed to continue to provide services until 30/1/13 under existing arrangements – basically Island Locums works 3 weeks per month and CHSA provides a locum service for the fourth week, allowing the local doctors a break.

Bear in mind that some of the doctors contracted to Island Locums are also on call for anaesthetic and/or obstetric rosters, as individual contractors. Having the locum relief for one week in four for A&E provides an important ‘safety valve’ for doctors who are otherwise on call for the hospital every day for around two thirds of the year, plus have to work running their own private practice.

CHSA now want to get rid of the locum and make Island Locums responsible for 24 hr cover 365 days of the year. With a limited number of doctors, (some of whom may leave in future) the pressure on those remaining would be untenable – unless the doctors in turn employ locums for around $2000 per day to provide hospital on call services – a cost currently borne by CHSA. This is not affordable.

CHSA have also made the ability of individual doctors who provide anaesthetic or obstetric on call services to be dependent on the ability of Island Locums to provide 365/24/7 A&E on call – despite these rosters being contracted to different entities. Having been hauled before the ACCC a few years ago by CHSA for alleged anticompetitive behaviour over rosters, the lumping together of rosters provided by different entities by CHSA seems truly perverse and in itself appears anti-competitive.

I’ve indicated the CHSA my willingness to sign a contract for anaesthetic on call – but after three months have still not been allowed to sign as CHSA insists that this service is dependent on another group of doctors providing A&E services.

In short, KI docs face loss of admitting rights and clinical privileges under standard contract terms for procedural on call, unless a solution is found.

The preference would be for existing arrangements to continue ie :the responsibility for staffing A&E remaining with CHSA and doctors contracted to Island Locums providing as much cover as possible without the collapse of local primary care services. Meanwhile procedural on call provided by individual doctors to continue so that Islanders and visitors have access to obstetric, anaesthetic and A&E services all year round.

In the last month the CEO of CHSA (Adj Prof Belinda Moyes) indicated that unless Island Locums assumed responsibility for A&E cover 365/24/7, there would be a threat to procedural services on the Island. As I understand it, Ms Moyes has now moved on (this will be the fourth CEO of CHSA in a decade, they seem to last 2-3 years on average) and is succeeded by Dr Peter Chapman as acting CEO. Perhaps NOW we will see some real action ?!?

Personally I am sick of the failure of Country Health SA to engage in meaningful discussion or acknowledge the different needs of different locations.

As a doctor I want to provide services to my community. Currently I am still in dispute with CHSA over fees for attending hospital patients to the tune of several thousand dollars. This and ongoing contractual disputes and threat of loss of procedural services make the tension for a rural doctor between running own business and working for CHSA almost unbearable.

The grass is looking increasingly greener elsewhere. But if doctors leave rural areas, the on call demands on those remaining escalates…in turn making the need for locum relief more acute.

There has to be a decision about whose responsibility it is to staff the hospital – individual doctors doing so in addition to their own business, or the State Government as a responsibility to provide rural services to taxpayers.

You can read more about some of the other SA contract disputes below :

Adelaide Now online http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/south-coast-district-hospitals-on-call-conditions-may-impel-gps-to-work-30-hours-straight/story-e6frea83-1226514731619

Situation in Victor Harbor (same health cluster as Kangaroo Island, different on call arrangements) http://www.victorharbortimes.com.au/story/741920/hesitation-about-doctor-handouts/

Situation in Quorn-Hawker http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-11-15/doctor-to-end-on-call-service-for-hawker/4373654

Situation in Clare-Snowtown http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-11-13/snowtown-health-care-under-cloud/4368530

Rural Doctor Magazine http://www.ruraldr.com.au/news/sa-gps-resisting-after-hours-deal

Australian Doctor magazine http://www.australiandoctor.com.au/news/latest-news/gps-in-dispute-over-on-call-contracts

MP Michael Pengilly speaking on Country Health in Parliament http://www.michaelpengilly.com.au/news/default.asp?action=article&ID=345

DISCLAIMER : The opinions here are my own. The reported situation on circumstances elsewhere in SA is from the media using links above. There has been no discussion of roster arrangements between separate practices or individual entities. I remain committed to the maintenance of current status quo – local doctors providing A&E services to the level appropriate to available workforce, as well as the continuation of individual procedural doctors providing anaesthetic and obstetric services to their island community under standard contract terms.

Welcome to KI Docs

Inspired by excellent Australian blogs such as Dr Casey Parker’s (Broome Docs) and Dr Cliff Reid’s (Resus.me), this website is aimed fairly and squarely at current (or aspiring) rural doctors in Australia.

Being a rural doctor is a challenging yet rewarding job, not least in a location like Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia.

Often lauded as the ‘jack-of-all-trades, master of none’, rural doctors hold their collective heads up high, proud to be true generalists…not narrow-focus partialists (or single-organ specialists). A rural doctor must be happy to be not just a primary care expert, but also to be competent in internal medicine, to perform minor surgery, to deliver a baby and to give an anaesthetic. Moreover, rural doctors often operate with minimal back-up such as easy access to blood tests, ultrasounds and CT scans.

As the emergency physicians at the excellent ‘Life In the Fast Lane‘ emergency medicine website say :

GP proceduralists in remote Australia are what most doctors were maybe eighty years ago — and what most of us dreamed of being when we went into medical school: having a baby? They’ll deliver it. Need an operation? They’ll gas you down (and they might even chop your leg off too). Got some bizarre disease no one’s ever heard of and you’re in the middle of nowhere? No worries, they’ll sort it out. You name it, if it has to be done, they’ll do it. These doctors are the princes of our profession.

So, in this blog the KI Docs (mostly frogs, not princes) discuss issues of relevance to rural docs Australia-wide. Whereas Broome DocsLITFL and Resus.me bring you the latest in gnarly case discussions and critical appraisal of the literature, this blog discusses some of the other factors involved in rural medicine – skills maintenance, networking, ‘getting things done’ and some of the common problems and solutions in rural medicine.

I’ll leave the clever stuff to people like Casey and Cliff!

You can check out more via the KI Medical Clinic or our exciting project designed for rural proceduralists at Island Locums

Enjoy!