ONE of north-western Victoria's bush nursing hospitals is on the brink of financial collapse, and it blames a deadlock between state and federal governments for the lack of funding needed to keep the doors open.
Locals say they fear the loss of the hospital will rip the heart out of Sea Lake, sending economic ripples that will wreck other local businesses.
The Sea Lake & District Health Service board broke the news to staff, community members and aged-care residents at a series of meetings yesterday, telling them it had until December before it would have to close, cutting about 40 jobs.
The 28 long-term high- and low-care residents of the two aged-care facilities attached to the hospital heard that they have until early next year to find somewhere else to live, in towns up to an hour's drive away, with some resident couples worried that they may lose touch with family or even each other.
Sea Lake mothers with small children said they worried for their safety without a local health service.
But the State Government said the hospital's problems were due to low occupancy in the aged-care service, and it had funded a review for the agency to find a sustainable business model.
Sea Lake is a community-owned not-for-profit hospital and aged-care facility. About a quarter of its funding comes from the State Government for its acute and emergency beds, and more than a third comes from Commonwealth aged-care funding, with the rest paid by the community through fees and fund-raisers.
The hospital also supports a private GP practice with incentives, rooms and nursing assistance, and its meals on wheels program delivers thousands of meals a year from the hospital kitchen.
Hospital board president Laurice McClelland said the service had always run financially "close to the line", but had been hit hard by a recent decline in the number of aged-care residents.
In the past two months, four high-care residents had died. The empty beds put the hospital into the red, with an obligation not to trade insolvent.
"We have had three years of negotiating with federal and state governments, they both say there should be [a health service in Sea Lake], but it doesn't translate into action," Ms McClelland said.
The health service believes its best option is to consolidate into one smaller facility, which can be managed by a neighbouring state-owned health service. But the state had not come up with the estimated $3.2 million for capital works that would make this feasible, Ms McClelland said. "We have the solution if they are prepared to work with us," she said.
Peter Walsh, member for Swan Hill and deputy leader of the Nationals, said the State Government was allowing the hospital to close through its inaction.
"You can't staff the four acute beds or the A&E [accident and emergency] if there is no aged care," he said. "The flow-on effect puts at risk the doctor, the viability of his surgery is undermined. It puts at risk the only pharmacy in town. When 30 to 40 jobs go in a town like this, that makes it hard for the businesses to attract staff, or the school. If there's no health service, why would you come to work here? It's totally unacceptable for a community of this size not to have a health service."
Opposition health spokesman David Davis said the Government had been systematically closing health facilities across regional Victoria.
"The Sea Lake Bush Nursing Hospital provides valuable services for its community and should not be cut off at the knees by [Premier John] Brumby," he said.
A spokesman for Health Minister Daniel Andrews said the State Government had supported Sea Lake with funding for medical equipment and infrastructure. "But the key factor affecting its financial viability has been the low occupancy of their residential aged-care beds," he said. "The Victorian Government will continue to invest in services for the Sea Lake community."
Hospital board member Mavis Hatcher said her diabetes, and her husband's heart condition, meant they were likely to move if the service closed.
"This is our town and it had everything we needed," she said. "It's a wonderful town but you can't imagine it not having a hospital. We have been let down very badly by the Government."
Sylvia Sullivan, 83, has lived at the low-care hostel for just over a year, after a bad knee and a heart attack left her unable to fend for herself, with no family within six hours' drive.
"If this closes I will be out under the barbed wire fence, as the saying goes," she said. "I gave up my home and everything to come here. When they told us [it will close] I thought, what are we going to do? It's a blow. I don't want to move from here. I will have to leave the district, lose my friends."
She called on the state and federal governments to come up with a solution. "Otherwise it's going to be a hard road to travel," she said.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.