I rise to speak this evening on the Health Complaints Bill 2016. This bill seeks to modernise and streamline the framework surrounding dealing with health complaints in this state. In doing so it also gives the newly created health complaints commissioner the powers to deal with health service providers that do not come under commonwealth legislation. These range from quacks looking for a quick buck by exploiting the desperate and the foolish, to the incredibly dangerous practitioners of the shameful practice that exploits vulnerable members of the LGBTI community by offering them so-called gay conversion therapies.
The bill replaces the Health Services (Conciliation and Review) Act 1987. It does so by addressing concerns raised by stakeholders during consultations in 2015 and addressing deficiencies identified in the review of the current legislation. It also creates an impartial and accessible health complaints resolution system, which retains the voluntary resolution of health complaints at its core. It does so by replacing the health services commissioner with a new health complaints commissioner with a broader remit and more powers and by addressing the current gap in legislation surrounding unregistered health practitioners. It is our hope that under this new framework the commissioner will also play a part in improving and maintaining quality health services for all Victorians.
This bill follows an expert review commissioned by the previous government in 2012, which produced a set of recommendations, most of which were included in a bill which did not have time to pass before the previous Parliament expired.
There has been of late increased media attention on unethical and potentially dangerous unlicensed medical practitioners, which have been an increasing source of concern both to the public and to policy-makers. This bill helps put them out of business and protect vulnerable Victorians. The bill also gives third parties the power to make complaints to the commissioner, whereas under the previous legislation only patients could make complaints. This will allow for concerned parents, family members, carers and others to make complaints about potentially problematic providers where the patient is either unwilling or unable to do so.
The bill also sees the application of a code of conduct for what are defined as ‘general health services’, which will apply for the safe and ethical delivery of health services, making false claims, maintaining standards of infection control, keeping records and giving correct and accurate information to the public. This is based on the national code of conduct for unregistered health service providers, as agreed by the Council of Australian Governments Health Council in April 2015. These professions range from the more mainstream, such as speech therapists, audiologists and paramedics, to more niche professions, such as reiki practitioners, aromatherapists and naturopaths, who provide what is defined as a general health service outside of the health service profession.
The commissioner will have jurisdiction over both those practising one of 14 professions, which under the national law have a protected title and are required to be registered with a national body, such as doctors, dentists and midwifes — defined as health service professions — and others. It also means that in a case where a doctor is committing malpractice under the auspices of an unlicensed clinic, whilst the doctor is referred to federal authorities, such as the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA), to be dealt with, the health services commissioner can continue to pursue action at a state level against the clinic or corporation running the clinic.
The commissioner will have the flexibility to, where possible, resolve complaints via the informal dispute resolution techniques, meaning that both providers and/or patients will hopefully in the majority of cases be able to have their disputes resolved in a timely and cost-effective manner. The commissioner will also, on the basis of a referral from either the health minister or Parliament, be able to conduct wider investigations into entire areas of therapy which have come to the attention of the minister. This could include emerging therapies being promoted by non-medical practitioners — for example, intravenous vitamin therapies — as well as psychological therapies being offered which are of concern.
The commissioner will also play a part in educating and informing health service providers about their responsibilities in relation to handling complaints. The commissioner will be given new powers in relation to complaints, chiefly the ability to ensure that complaints are seen to in a timely manner and where a conciliation process is agreed to for providers to produce information. The commissioner will also have the power to investigate and if necessary prohibit or restrict the practices or operations of health service providers not covered by commonwealth law. They will also have the authority to disclose what would otherwise be confidential information if there is a potential risk to public safety and or human life. This is in addition to the name-and-shame provisions of the bill outlined earlier.
The commissioner will of course be subjected to oversight, including the requirement to provide an annual report to Parliament, as well as a requirement to consult with the Health Complaints Commissioner Advisory Council, which will also be created by this bill, before commencing a commissioner-initiated investigation. This legislation seeks to address the growth in both the number and variety of health service providers in existence. Especially in an age of technological growth, there are more and more opportunities and ways for people to find health service providers but also, unfortunately, for unscrupulous providers to find customers to exploit.
This legislation also reflects a changing regulatory environment at a commonwealth level with the introduction of the new Health Practitioner Regulation National Law. It is a reflection of the findings of the 2012 review into the former health services commissioner, which found, amongst other things, that there was a lack of public awareness about the commissioner, that inadequate support was provided to complainants and that the dispute resolution process was at times protracted and/or inflexible. It also crucially found that the commissioner lacked sufficient powers in dealing with the small number of practitioners who were unethical, incompetent or impaired, but who could not be dealt with under existing legislation because they were not governed by formal regulations.
In cases where a regulated health practitioner is involved, they may then instead be referred onwards to AHPRA and the relevant national board. The bill also provides for further follow-up to be conducted by health service providers to ensure that recommendations from investigation reports have been followed up and adhered to. It allows for a follow-up investigation to be instigated where the commissioner believes that recommendations have not been adhered to, and at this point the provisions for the public naming of health services providers also become available to the commissioner.
The commissioner will also have the power to issue an interim prohibition order, which applies for a period of 12 weeks, in cases where they have commenced an investigation, where they believe an order has been breached or where they believe the practitioner presents a serious risk to the health and welfare of an individual and or the wider public. The separate power given to the commissioner to conduct public inquiries of a more general nature will be another aspect of the role of the commissioner in promoting better quality health services. Hence the commissioner would have the capacity to conduct public inquiries and to seek input from experts and the public — for example, into a questionable new treatment or other specific issues.
This law brings Victorian law into line with other laws surrounding health practitioners in New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland. Orders made in those states will apply in Victoria and vice versa, ensuring that dodgy providers are not able to move between states. In all cases anybody disagreeing with a finding made against them by the commissioner will have recourse to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. This bill will ensure that all Victorians are better protected from potentially unscrupulous health care professionals who are not covered by existing frameworks. It will ensure that individuals and organisations peddling dangerous, unproven or sham treatments are held to account and that vulnerable Victorians are protected from them.
This is a clever bill, and I want to pay tribute to the public servants who do not get mentioned but who help with continuity so that good ideas and good policies are not lost, particularly after changes of government. If you look back historically, there have been claims made by the opposition to ownership of this, but I would like to actually commend some of our diligent public servants who do not get recognised, who actually follow issues through and who make sure that things get done. I just want to put on the record in this house that they are too often overlooked, but it is important to have this consistency so that good initiatives in the public interest do not fall by the wayside when there are changes of government. I think that is an important proposition, and it is too often overlooked, so I want to acknowledge those people on the public record in the Parliament today. I commend the bill to the house.