THE Health Service Union (HSU) has voiced concern over a shortage of high dependency mental health facilities on the South Coast that could see at-risk patients on the streets.
Shellharbour Hospital's Eloura West unit is a secure observation unit for mental health patients and provides the highest level of mental health care on the South Coast.
The issue was brought to light following an incident where a patient at the Eloura West unit died on July 31. A fellow patient has been charged with murder.
HSU regional organiser for the Illawarra/Shoalhaven Andrew Gorman said only nine high-need beds were available at the facility. That number has been reduced to six since the incident on July 31.
"From Helensburgh to Ulladulla, the Shellharbour unit is the only high dependency facility on the South Coast," Mr Gorman said. "It is just not enough for the amount of people in the area."
Currently two investigations on the July 31 incident are being conducted; by Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District (ISLHD) and NSW Health.
Mr Gorman said following the incident it was brought to his attention that a patient with high needs was in a low-dependency unit.
"This situation creates a problem that puts other patients and staff in danger of serious injury if a patient is to go off the rails," Mr Gorman said.
"There needs to be a place available for people that need high dependency help or that need to be institutionalised, so as to avoid putting high-need patients in a low-dependency unit where they don't get the treatment they require or they get sent home."
ISLHD declined to comment on the matter at this point, as investigations were still under way.
The mental health facility at Shellharbour Hospital also came under fire in 2011, when patient Suzie Oneeglio was found dead in an Albion Park house eight weeks after leaving the Eloura unit.
She had apparently overdosed on an anti-psychotic drug combined with alcohol.
Ms Oneeglio suffered from manic depression and before her death had spent six years in various NSW public mental health wards. Her family said failures in the health system had contributed to her death and alleged that medication she was prescribed (valium), lack of communication between state facilities and the environment had encouraged her manic behaviour.
Mr Gorman said the union hoped that by drawing attention to the issue, another high dependency ward would be considered to cater for the population.
A NSW Department of Health spokesperson said they had appointed a chief psychiatrist to conduct a clinical review of the facility on the July 31 incident.
UPDATE: An ABC report came out today (August 26) about the Eloura West facility with unions stating that nurses feared for their safety and the safety of patients.
Brett Holmes from the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association told the ABC there had been problems at the unit for years and recent reports of physical assault.
Lorraine Long from the Medical Error Action Group said she received information five-six weeks ago that staff were fearful someone would be killed.
An anonymous email sent to the the action group said: "There is a massive alcohol epidemic in Shellharbour and violence is a daily occurrence. The hospital has a Zero Tolerance Policy yet refuses to use the flagging/contract system of violent repeat offenders.
"Many staff have been assaulted, continuously there are incident reports, yet they always lead nowhere. Calls for 24/7 security fall on deaf ears. I believe someone shall be seriously attacked soon."
See video on the report here