Hospital staff use petty cash to buy food for patients January 26, 2009 MONTHS after a country hospital served baked beans for three weeks because NSW Health had not paid its meat bill, staff are still using petty cash to buy food over the counter for patients because businesses are refusing to deal with the health service. Meat supplies were cut off to 15 hospitals across the Greater Western Area Health Service in September after the Dubbo Meat Company waited four months for a $30,000 bill to be settled. It is believed that since then managers from the area service have approached businesses for credit but have been refused, leaving staff to pay cash over the counter for sausages and mince for patients' meals. "Nobody wants to touch them," one butcher said. "It's awful because you don't want to deny sick people, but when you are a struggling little business you can't afford to wait so long for your money." The Herald has been told that nurses in the emergency department at Mudgee Hospital were buying blood glucose strips and alcohol testing kits from a pharmacy last week because suppliers have refused to provide them, and two toilets in the wards were blocked for two weeks this month because the plumber declined to fix the pipes unless he was paid $400 owed to him. Staff have also been forced to use petty cash to buy light bulbs and computer paper because the companies supplying them have not been paid in months. The Health Minister, John Della Bosca, said the area health service owed about $60 million when he took over the portfolio four months ago, and now owed less than $23 million. The chairman of the Mudgee Health Council, James Lonergan, said running out of blood sugar tests for even one day in an emergency department showed how bad things had become. "People here look at the State Government spending $5 million on crackers on New Year's Eve when we can't get a $400 bill paid." The owner of Dubbo Meat Company, Mark Knaggs, said hospital staff were "seriously embarrassed" at having to buy goods over the counter with petty cash. "We were going backwards. Even if they had agreed to pay us smaller amounts regularly, we would have ridden it, but they didn't." Kelvin Waterhouse sold his butchery in Nyngan last month, walking away angry that the local hospital regularly left him up to $4000 in debt and still owes him $1201. "It is shocking, just unbelievable. The guy who bought my shop is going to honour the contract until June, and then he wants to wipe his hands of them," Mr Waterhouse said. "I was ringing [the health service's head office in] Bathurst every few days asking for my money. They'd tell me they had sent a cheque, then next time they'd tell me I had banked it. I am still waiting for my money." Steve Miller, the owner of Country Fruit Distributors, in Dubbo, said he was close to cancelling his deal. He was owed $20,000 by the health service last year until he went public by ringing a radio station. "They settled that bill pretty quickly, but now they have fallen in a hole again Ã¢Â€Â¦ They're hospitals so we don't like to refuse them but it is getting to the point where I just can't carry [the debt] any more." Mr Miller is now owed $4700 by Dubbo Base Hospital, $1000 by Coonabarabran, $1700 by Nyngan and $300 by Parkes - all due three months ago. Last October the Herald reported that nurses at Dubbo Base Hospital were borrowing bandages from a vet for patients and were regularly without basic supplies such as sterilisation fluid, garbage bags and surgical gloves, and in September X-rays were unavailable because the health service had not paid its bill to Kodak. Mr Della Bosca said: "There are still issues that we're getting on top of, but I'm quite confident over the next few weeks and months they'll see some of those problems disappearing."