Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia (RDVSA) announced on August 30, it would withdraw as a service provider from the 1800RESPECT Trauma Counselling Service, the federal government-funded hotline.
The announcement punctuates a struggle waged by RDVSA workers to maintain the hotline as a non-profit specialist counselling service in the face of a push by the managing company Medibank Health Solutions (MHS) towards privatisation. After MHS’s subcontract with RDVSA expired in June, MHS put the contract out to tender with new contract provisions.
By instituting a new service plan, MHS plans to double its profit from sexual assault and domestic violence over the next five years — an announcement the unionised specialist trauma counselling workers of the 1800RESPECT hotline could not accept.
The RDVSA first response operators who worked until recently at the call centre say that the MHS profit-driven service model has compromised the quality of service to domestic violence survivors who call the hotline in critical situations seeking urgent help.
As a response to increasing demand on the service, MHS began implementing a cost-cutting process of operators answering callers first and only redirecting them to a trained trauma counsellor after assessing their situation.
The government claims only a quarter of the callers to the hotline require specialist counselling, but the counselling workers say that almost all of the callers do.
Since the institution of the new model, complaints about the quality of service have skyrocketed.
One woman calling the hotline was told by an operator that if she didn’t stop crying, the call would be ended. Another hotline operator neglected to call 000 as a woman on the other end of the phone was forced to barricade herself in a shed as she hid from her attacker.
The counselling workers say that the people who call the service in emergency situations are rushed off the phone to maintain superficial efficiency rates and do not receive adequate counselling.
NSW Secretary for the Australian Services Union Natalie Lang said: “The needs of the people calling are not being properly identified if they are being rushed off the phone, which is what they are doing when you’ve got that service based on answering calls in the minimal amount of time.”
In response to the MHS privatisation plan, the Australian Services Union ran a “No Profit from Rape” campaign to hand the service back to the RDVSA and return to calls being answered directly by its specialist trauma counsellors.
According to a statement released by RDVSA: “Accepting the sub-contract and the new MHS service model would be inconsistent with the values, ethics, quality counselling practices and workplace relations that are foundational to our organisation and culture.”
RDVSA also raised concern around the handling of client files and mismanagement of the service by MHS.
MHS also proposed to scrap the “re-contacts service”, developed by RDVSA to work with those who are experiencing complex trauma, commonly resulting from sexual assault in childhood and further sexual and domestic violence in adolescence and adulthood. The re-contacts service had supported 600 clients and had 200 current users, all of whom will now be cut off from the service.
RDVSA traced the mismanagement of 1800RESPECT to the handing over of this vital public service to a for-profit company. “The open tendering of services has brought in providers where profit is the primary motive. This economic rationalist approach views competition as a driver of efficiencies,” the statement reads.
“The outcome is most commonly: quality is equated to numbers; outcomes for clients or any commitment to flexible client-driven and client-centred practice is labelled inefficient; systems advocacy ceases.”
Lang said: “I think it is completely disgraceful for any government to say that it is OK for a private, for-profit insurance company to make a profit out of people who have been raped and experienced terrible violence.”
[Mia Sanders is a co-convener of Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance.]