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(l-r) Federal Labor candidate for Page Patrick Deegan, shadow minister for health and Medicare Catherine King and Clarence Valley’s mayor, Jim Simmons are pictured at the old helipad – a new one is likely to cost around $750,000. Image: Contributed.

Hot potato helipad

Geoff Helisma |

When the helipad at Maclean District Hospital was decommissioned in May 2017, following a safety audit that found it did not meet new safety and engineering guidelines, the Northern NSW Local Health District (NNSW LHD) issued a statement saying it was “determining the costs associated with ensuring the [helipad] meets these standards”.

Sixteen months later, with no on-ground work commenced and both state and federal elections looming next year, federal candidate for Page Patrick Deegan dealt one of his ‘elect me’ cards at the site on Wednesday September 26.

With Member for Ballarat and shadow minister for health and Medicare Catherine King in tow, Mr Deegan announced that “a Shorten Labor government will provide faster access to care for critically ill people in the Clarence Valley by building a new helipad at Maclean District Hospital”.

Mr Deegan said in his media release that “people in Maclean have repeatedly told [me] the new helipad was a top priority … and [they] have been frustrated that their calls have been ignored by … [Page MP] Kevin Hogan and the federal and state Liberals”.

“Labor’s investment will restore direct helicopter transfers from Maclean District Hospital, ensuring faster access to care at other hospitals and keeping ambulances where they belong – on the road responding to calls,” he said.

The Health Services Union (HSU) NSW has welcomed the announcement; HSU secretary Gerard Hayes said paramedics have been lobbying for a new helipad since the existing helipad was closed.

“Having a purpose-built helipad at the hospital site will save time, and potentially save lives,” Mr Hayes said in his media release.

The original helipad was built and funded following a Maclean Rotary Club fundraising campaign and a $38,500 Commonwealth Regional Partnership grant announced in January 2005 by federal Cowper MP Luke Hartsuyker.

Come December 2017 the NNSW LHD’s chief executive Wayne Jones said “an engineer had been engaged to assist with estimates for several options being explored for the Maclean helipad, including remediation and redevelopment”.

In May of 2018 Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis said he had “demanded” the NSW Government to fund the construction of a new helipad in its forthcoming budget.

“Ensuring the health and wellbeing of the community is my number one priority and should be the number one priority of all governments,” he said in a speech to the NSW Legislative Assembly on Thursday May 3.

However, following the release of the NSW budget, Mr Gulatpis’s hopes were dashed.

While announcing the $10.5 million he said he had fought for to upgrade Grafton Base Hospital, he also said “a new helipad at Maclean Hospital is also very much on my radar”.

Mr Gulaptis told the Independent that he has discussed the issue with Deputy Premier John Barilaro, as has Maclean Rotary president and the hospital’s now retired nurse manager Anne Farrell.

“[Mr Barilaro] has given an assurance that he will look at securing funding,” Mr Gulaptis said.

“There’s no time frame, but I’m confident funds will be available in the near future, and not as an election promise – I’m confident it will be provided outside of the election.”

Ms Farrell said Mr Barilaro “gave me an undertaking that he would come good with the money – and I have emailed him since it became political”.

Kevin Hogan said he was “working with Chris Gulaptis and his colleagues to secure funding for this project”.
“The Deputy Premier has given me a commitment he will do everything he can to secure the funding. I am confident the Maclean helipad will be funded in the near future,” he said.

Lynne Weir, the acting NNSWLHD chief executive, said: “Following consultation with engineers, council and aviation experts, a design report has now been completed to redevelop the Maclean helipad to comply with updated safety and security guidelines.

“NNSWLHD continues to explore options to complete this work.”

Mr Barilaro’s office had not responded before the Independent’s copy deadline.

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