The Australian Society of Ophthalmologists (ASO) has defended the organisation that was awarded a $2.2 million government contract to perform cataract procedures in Indigenous communities amid accusations it was charging double the market rate.
An article published by the Sydney Morning Herald this week also called into question the contract given to Indigenous and Remote Eye Health Service (IRIS) due to the organisation’s Liberal Party connections and the lack of a tender process.
ASO president Dr Peter Sumich and vice president Dr Ashish Agar have labelled the report “utterly incorrect” and “misinformed”. They have defended the character of those named in the article and called on the publication to apologise.
The report, published on Tuesday, claimed the office of Mr Ken Wyatt, Minister for Indigenous Australians, was lobbied to approve the contract for 500 eye surgeries for IRIS in 2018.
A staff member was quoted as being concerned that a private Queensland company was contracted for $4000 per surgery. This fee, the article claimed, was almost double what eye surgeons in Sydney or Melbourne charge to remove cataracts and more than five times the Medicare Benefits Schedule fee of $772.
IRIS directors ‘defamed’
In a statement published on its website, the ASO said it “backs the Indigenous and Remote Eye Health Service (IRIS) amidst unfair media defamation” and is proud to be associated with the organisation and its directors.
Agar said the fee of $4000 mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald article refers to the whole service provided. This includes pre-operative clinic and post-operative care, consumables and operative eye fluids, intraocular lens implants, a medical and nursing team and a concessional surgeon fee.
Other costs include air transportation for people and equipment, staff accommodation and meals for up to a week, charter plane for very remote locations or other transport to pick up Indigenous patients from remote settlements, and a team trained in cultural sensitivity on site for up to one week prior to surgery to locate, prepare and care for patients.
“By comparison, the NSW Government Statewide cost price for Cataract Surgery used in NSW Public Hospital budgets is $4823,” Dr Agar said
“The Sydney Morning Herald article is utterly incorrect to state that the $4000 fee is ‘double the going rate’. The original journalist who has since been requoted in The Guardian and ABC media, has been misinformed by his source and should properly apologise to those he has defamed.”
Sumich said IRIS is a practical example of ASO’s support for the ‘Closing the Gap’ national initiative and defended the reputations of Dr Bill Glasson and lobbyist Mr Kerry Gallagher, who were listed as IRIS directors between 2016 and 2019.
Glasson is an ophthalmologist, former Australian Medical Association president and former Liberal candidate who unsuccessfully ran for the Queensland seat of Griffith in 2013 and 2014.
Gallagher was reported to own Vanguard Consulting, the ultimate holding company of IRIS. The company also operates Vanguard Health, the company listed as the winner of the contract in question, which has donated to the Liberal National Party of Queensland since 2009.
“Dr Bill Glasson, AO is a respected peer leader and has for decades performed cataract surgery from Longreach to Birdsville and in other Indigenous communities. His reputation is totally beyond reproach,” he said.
“Mr Kerry Gallagher, AM likewise, is a distinguished war veteran who has dedicated much of his time to running IRIS at very little personal benefit. Dragging these two upstanding Australians into what is essentially a politicised employment dispute within Minister Wyatt’s office is deplorable.”
Sumich said Wyatt and Federal Health Minister Mr Greg Hunt have continued the tradition of bipartisan support for Indigenous remote outback eye services.
“It is terribly regrettable that these facts were not checked prior to publication. The article disrespects the doctors, nurses and support staff who have a passion for treating Indigenous blindness, not to mention the Indigenous patients who willingly took part in this ground-breaking program.
“I feel dreadfully hurt for these fine Australians who have had their reputations impugned.”
Minister defends contract
In a statement on Tuesday, a spokesman for Wyatt said the contract to Vanguard was awarded “following advice provided by the Health Department” on 1 August 2018.
Initial briefs were signed by Wyatt on 9 August, Hunt on 15 August, with the contract approved on 24 August.
“The Australian Society of Ophthalmologists – through Vanguard Health – was provided funding from the previous Labor federal government in 2010/11, to plan and develop a four-year plan for eye services (IRIS 1.0),” the spokesman told The Guardian.
“The IRIS proposal was assessed by the Indigenous Health Division, in line with the standard process for unsolicited proposals under the Indigenous Australians’ Health program, and was assessed as suitable for the funding on the basis it would meet the unmet need for cataract surgery.
“Given the pending delivery of the ‘roadmap’ for Indigenous Eye Health and relative value for money considerations, the department recommended the IRIS initiative be funded as a two-year trial, with an independent evaluation in the second half of year two to assess effectiveness and efficiency.”
The spokesman reportedly said the department’s advice was that “the initiative would deliver 500 eye procedures for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the two years”.
More than 300 remote operations have been carried out to date.