Just two weeks after the opening of the new Royal Adelaide Hospital, embattled South Australian Health Minister Jack Snelling has quit cabinet, announcing he will leave parliament at next year’s state election.
Snelling’s resignation was followed hours later by the announcement by Mental Health Minister Leesa Vlahos that she would be stepping down from the ministry for “personal health” reasons.
Both ministers were responsible for the state-run Oakden nursing home, where poor treatment of dementia patients led to the closing down of the facility and an anti-corruption inquiry, which is soon to deliver its report.
Claiming his decision to walk away from politics was due to family reasons, Snelling’s departure from his contentious tenure in the health minister’s role “caught people unawares” in the party, according to Labor Whip Tom Kenyon.
First term MP Peter Malinauskas will move from police and correctional services to take on health and mental health, assuming roles besieged by controversy.
South Australia’s new flagship $2.4 billion hospital opened earlier this month after a decade of controversy, including a 17-month delay, cost blowouts, political infighting and construction fatalities.
The hospital is also the subject of a $185 million lawsuit in the Federal Court, with builders claiming delays in the implementation of the electronic patient records system — EPAS — at the new RAH made it “impossible” for the project to be completed on time.
In Parliament last month, Snelling downplayed the problems with EPAS while conceding paper records would also be used at the new hospital “to make the move as simple for our clinicians as is possible”.
SA Health has been rolling out EPAS across all its public hospitals and healthcare agencies since 2013. More than 2000 staff use it each day and over 1.29 million inpatient, outpatient and emergency department visits have been registered in the system.
But according to the state’s AMA, a survey of medical staff found they viewed the system as “not fit for purpose”.
Pathology mix-ups, prescribing mishaps and trouble finding records when they are urgently needed were some of the problems identified by users of the system in a questionnaire.
[See more: SA doctors claim the state’s EMR has caused errors and delayed urgent care | SA Government sued for $185m over delays with new Royal Adelaide Hospital electronic health record system]
AMA(SA)’s president, Associated Professor William Tam, said he was surprised at Snelling’s resignation at a time of significant disruption caused by the government’s healthcare system overhaul, Transforming Health. With an election looming in March, he said the doctor’s advocacy group is looking forward to working with the new minister to fix the system.
“With many issues across our metropolitan hospitals unresolved and much more work to be done before the new RAH and the rest of the public health system can meet the over 200 standards set by SA Health, we see a significant burden falling onto the shoulders of his replacement,” Tan said.
“We appreciate Minister Malinauskas has a massive challenge ahead. He has only six months before the next election to try to bring some stability to the SA health system and return some confidence to the medical profession and more importantly the public.”
In his announcement on Sunday, Snelling said it was the right time for him to resign.
“I’m in my mid 40s. I’ve been a member of parliament for 20 years and really I’ve decided that now is the time for me to step away,” he said at a press conference alongside his wife and six children.
“It’s something I need to do for my family as well. In a portfolio like health you can’t help but be often distracted and perhaps, dare I say it, sometimes a little bit grumpy with the family in a way that they don’t deserve.”
Premier Jay Weatherill paid tribute to the outgoing minister’s contributions, including the delivery of the new RAH and the almost completed Transforming Health.
“It’s been a stellar career,” Weatherill said.
But Opposition Leader Steven Marshall said the controversial minister’s unexpected resignation had created more chaos.
“Jack Snelling has decided to actually jump ship. This is a massive slap in the face for Jay Weatherill and this chaotic Labor government,” Marshall said.
“There’s much more to this story than what we’ve heard today.”