Port Macquarie residents challenge hospital secrecy
By Karen Fredericks
SYDNEY — The Hastings Hospital Action Group (HHAG) has lodged an appeal under the NSW Freedom of Information Act against the refusal by the NSW Department of Health to release the contents of 18 contracts signed last December by the minister for health, Ron Phillips, and various companies. The contracts deliver private monopoly control of hospital and possibly all community health services in the Port Macquarie region.
HHAG requested details of the contracts from the department earlier this year. The request was denied on the grounds that the contracts contained commercially sensitive information and confidentiality clauses. The group has now engaged an independent legal service, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), to challenge the refusal in the NSW District Court. The appeal was lodged on June 4.
PIAC solicitor John McKenzie told Green Left that the HHAG will argue the appeal on the basis of the community's right and need to know the details of the plans for the hospital and other health services in the area.
"What we're dealing with is public hospital health services, to which all taxpayers contribute", he said. "People should be given information as to what exactly is proposed to happen under this completely new scheme of operation. This is the first such public hospital to be privatised in Australia."
One of the most worrying aspects for residents in the Port Macquarie region is the uncertainty surrounding the level of private health insurance which will be required to cover accommodation and treatment at the facility. Information available to the HHAG indicates basic hospital cover, if taken out after December 18, will not be sufficient.
The fate of non-hospital community health services, in an area with a far higher than average proportion of elderly residents, is also hazy.
"Where does community health fit in?", asks McKenzie. "Community health is supposed to prevent people going into hospital and yet at the moment it's up in the air as to whether the private operator is actually going to run and control the community health service, supposedly to help keep people out of their profit-making operation."
Other details of the scheme contained within the contracts and, according to the state government, protected by "commercial confidentiality", include the proposed standards of accommodation and hygiene for the hospital and what financial discounts, if any, were granted either to the private operators or back to the Health Department in the course of the various deals.