I rise today to speak on the Triple Zero Victoria Bill 2023, a bill that attempts to address a crisis that has impacted the health, wellbeing and lives of residents in my electorate of Euroa. This is a bill that will help establish a new entity called Triple Zero Victoria by repealing the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority Act 2004 and by making amendments to other acts. This will result in the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority, ESTA, ceasing to exist in favour of this new entity. While there are concerns over the tight control the government will have over Triple Zero Victoria, I do acknowledge that something absolutely needs to change. The existing system has let down Victorians in desperate need of care and in far too many instances has cost people their lives.
This bill has been introduced following some damning findings in the ESTA capability and service review final report. The results on other services have also brought forward serious concerns – namely, the reviews that investigated this state’s preparedness for major public health emergencies and our ambulance response times. These reports were prompted by the well-publicised failures in the 000 and ambulance response systems, which resulted in the tragic deaths of 33 Victorians. These failures were a government oversight issue and not faults caused by employees of ESTA. In one of the most challenging times imaginable for our healthcare and medical employees, the call takers and staff at ESTA and Ambulance Victoria did a fantastic job. However, there was clear mismanagement of ESTA, with the government failing to foresee and act upon several significant problems that had emerged over recent years.
Although putting more control of the system in the hands of this government might not be the best option based on their previous performance with ESTA, it is fair to say that a change is necessary. To achieve this change, this bill lays out several provisions for the new entity Triple Zero Victoria and how it will replace ESTA. This includes their powers, objectives, functions, administrative matters, staffing and more. There are also several clauses that demonstrate just how closely this government will be attached to Triple Zero Victoria. Let us hope that this control comes with some accountability to fix the system.
Within my electorate of Euroa, failures within the 000 system and poor ambulance response times have genuinely been devastating for many individuals and their families. Earlier this year I spoke about how Victoria’s code 1 ambulance response times were in disarray. Response times were worse than they were in the 12 months previous, despite a significant decline in demand for emergency 000 calls, according to data directly from Ambulance Victoria. Over the previous quarter just 65.2 per cent of ambulances arrived on time in a code 1 emergency, despite target ranges of 85 to 90 per cent. The average time for an ambulance to arrive also remained above Ambulance Victoria’s target times. These code 1 emergencies are not minor incidents; these are people’s lives and not just numbers. These emergencies are high priority and time critical, but the targets have not been met. While marginal improvement has been observed across LGAs in the Euroa electorate, Ambulance Victoria targets were still not being met in our LGAs of Mitchell, Benalla, Strathbogie or Greater Bendigo for code 1 emergencies.
I recently had a constituent in Seymour reach out to my office to give his thoughts about the response times after his wife had passed away. He said:
… people are dying because the ambulance takes up to 1 hour to arrive even if they can see the station from there house (in my case) i lost my wife because the ambulance took 45 minutes …
He also mentioned how for three years he met with Ambulance Victoria, tabled petitions and spoke with MPs but has not seen a response. Victoria has not seen a response. This is a man who lives just 300 metres from his local ambulance branch yet was put through an inconceivable tragedy. Sadly, this is an experience that can be found in Mitchell, Bendigo and Benalla too. On average, people across the Strathbogie shire have been waiting close to 25 minutes for an ambulance in an emergency. These are densely populated regional areas, and yet the 000 system is failing regional Victorians.
In many of these regional areas volunteer patient transport systems have been stepping up to the plate where ambulances cannot. I would like to thank the Royal Flying Doctor Service community transport program that has been operating within my electorate in Heathcote. Since launching in 2018 RFDS community transport has been providing eligible clients with free transport from home to health appointments and funded social support groups. The volunteer-led program is currently operating in Heathcote, Rochester, Warracknabeal and Numurkah. For the Heathcote and Rochester sites the patient transport has completed nearly 25,000 trips, travelled nearly 700,000 kilometres and taken 1000 regional Victorians to appointments. This has all been made possible with the help of 50 volunteers. I was introduced to this amazing group during National Volunteer Week, and I remain in regular contact with them. The service this team delivers is so impactful for the communities it serves and is helping save lives every day. I am excited to host them at Parliament next month.
Off the back of a dismal budget for health care and a lack of funding to key health programs across the state, the work of volunteer groups has never been more critical. The patient transport team’s sole focus is to chauffeur patients in isolated communities to medical appointments, importantly facilitating transfers for appointments focused on early detection and intervention. For many of these patients this would not be financially practicable, meaning the service being offered is crucial in helping many patients change the outcome of their conditions and is in many cases saving lives. For the people this service is provided for it is about more than just accessing health care; it is also about maintaining social connections in otherwise often isolated communities.
Speaking more broadly, the issues within our ambulance services and response times are a symptom of a government that has neglected our healthcare system for too long. The stark reality is that our regional health services are really struggling. When I hear the government talk about how fantastic Melbourne’s healthcare options and medical facilities are, I feel the need to remind them that this state is bigger than just the city. Every Victorian, irrespective of where they live, deserves quality health care. This is a fundamental right and not a luxury. Beyond the extensive ambulance wait times, we have seen out-of-control surgery waitlists and cuts to essential health services. Earlier this year we saw cuts of up to 15 per cent to our grassroots and preventative services, including programs to address chronic illnesses. Last year we saw $2 billion cut from the health budget on top of cuts to preventative health services. The strategy to cut funding from preventative health care while allowing surgery to continue being deferred has been a double kick in the guts to Victorians. Our category 1 surgery waitlists, the most urgent there are, have ballooned by 45 per cent in a three-month period this year. Without further investment from government our regional healthcare system will continue to fail – and people are suffering. Every single person on these waitlists has a story to tell about deferred care and unnecessary time waiting in agony for life-changing surgery.
If the current state of our health system is a benchmark of this government’s performance, then it is failing dismally. 105 days ago I made an adjournment to the Minister for Health calling for a substantial increase in funding for regional health services so my community can get the health care they need when they need it. My office is the crisis centre when our community needs help, and too often we are assisting constituents impacted by Victoria’s broken health system. Regional Victorians, including those in Mitchell, Benalla, Strathbogie and Greater Bendigo, are bearing the brunt of the heartbreaking mismanagement of our health services by the minister. Our health system is not just failing; people’s families, loved ones and children are suffering. When I say loved ones, I also include my two-year-old daughter Quinn, who was hospitalised with severe respiratory issues in winter. Our local hospital could not afford to stock the critical dexamethasone she urgently needed. We went by ambulance to the Northern Hospital, where she was in one of 20 ambulances ramped at a hospital that had a queue to the emergency department that overflowed outside and in the rain. This week, three months later, I finally had a response from the minister, who bragged about the financial investment in the health system but failed to acknowledge the thousands of people in regional communities unable to receive the most basic of care. Lives have been lost and families shattered, and the minister responsible should be held accountable for her failures. This bill appears to be the first step to rectify this government’s failures in our health system.
In the ESTA Capability and Service Review: Final Report there were some damning points raised that I hope under a new system will be addressed. I will not touch on all of them, but I would like to point out that ESTA did not meet the primary ambulance emergency call answer speed benchmark in any month from December to June 2022. Call volume increases in this time period did not lead to this non-compliant response time performance. There were 40 potential adverse events associated with call answer delays, agency command and control issues during COVID-19-related surges in activity. In these events 33 patients did not survive their emergency. ESTA was unable to match the required operational staff numbers to meet the demand of ambulance calls that were forecast. The Victorian government was aware of ESTA’s precarious financial position as early as 2015.