Mental health fight heats up

THE fight for improved mental health funding and staffing levels is set to intensify, according to unions.

Both the Health and Community Services Union and Australian Nursing Federation (Victorian branch) told The Express last week they were disappointed with progress on negotiations with the State Government over staffing and workload management in mental health units.

Past months have seen Latrobe Regional Hospital’s mental health workers rally for an increase in funding for staff amid claims the hospital’s mental health unit was being kept afloat by overtime work.

Enterprise bargaining negotiations between HACSU and the State Government have been drawn out over seven months now.

HACSU assistant state secretary Paul Healey said the union had hoped for a “firm offer” from the government over a week ago “so we could actually take it to our members and start talking about it” but was disappointed to receive “a re-edited claim”.

“There was no change, no real offer, nothing,” he said.

“They claim they have no money; I don’t know where they put it all but it’s not in mental health, I know that.”

A statewide HACSU meeting will be held on Wednesday to discuss a potential escalation of industrial action, Mr Healey said.

Meanwhile ANF (Victoria) assistant secretary Pip Carew said the union was also pushing for “proper workload management” for community mental health nurses, particularly in regional areas where distance added to their burden.

Further, Ms Carew told The Express the lack of mandated mental health nurse/patient ratios in hospitals, including LRH, created “an unacceptable disparity” between general nurses and their mental health nursing counterparts.

Mental health nurses are covered by the psychiatric services agreement and, unlike the general nurses agreement, although there are “agreed outcomes”, mental health unit staffing levels were largely determined at the discretion of employers, Ms Carew said.

“Problems arise when there is a budget restraint and the wrong decisions can be made with nursing hours being compromised.”

Ms Carew said mental health patients were “the most vulnerable members of the community” but entered the health system without the certainty afforded to general patients who could “expect consistent numbers of nurses looking after them.”

The ANF was negotiating on matters with the State Government in Fair Work Australia late last week.