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Private hospital’s whistleblower crackdown ‘could be illegal’

“There is a sense that management is determined to punish someone, and they have a lot of scope to restrict the practice and income of someone who doesn’t toe the line,” they said. “Surgeons know they can have their operating time reduced or removed.”

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Senator Patrick said if the hospital threatened medical staff he would raise the matter with “relevant ministers and authorities to intervene”.

“Whistleblowing is critical to ensuring proper conduct within both government and commercial sectors to prevent misfeasance, corruption, fraud and other wrongdoing,” he said.

“All whistleblowers acting in good faith need to be protected.”

Professor A. J. Brown, the head of Griffith University’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy’s public integrity and anti-corruption research program, said the whistleblower may be protected under the NSW Public Interest Disclosures Act or the Corporations Act, depending on the circumstances.

“They would need to have made a disclosure internally first, or to the relevant regulator [ASIC or APRA under Commonwealth law and the NSW Ombudsman under state law] … Unless there was no safe avenue to do so,” Professor Brown said.

The alleged wrongdoing sought to be exposed could be defined as “a form of maladministration” under the Public Interest Disclosure Act, he said.

Macquarie University Vice-Chancellor Professor S. Bruce Dowton, who is responsible for the university’s whistleblower protection regime, declined to comment.

A university spokesman said in a statement the hospital “is aware of our obligations under our whistleblower policy and legal obligations”.

“The investigation is focused on our responsibility to protect the confidentiality and management of patient health information,” the spokesman said.

“At no time were medical staff threatened with the loss of their jobs.”

The federal health department has refused to say how many elective surgeries were conducted during the ban, when all category 3 and non-urgent category 2 surgeries were banned due to the need to preserve ICU capacity and PPE for a potential surge of COVID-19 patients.

Senator Patrick asked acting secretary Caroline Edwards about the department’s investigation into surgeries performed during the ban, when the Commonwealth was essentially paying private hospitals not to perform non-essential procedures, at a COVID-19 Senate inquiry hearing on Tuesday.

Ms Edwards said while she had heard “some anecdotal reports” of non-compliant surgery, “that’s a matter for the relevant state or territory to pursue”.

She took on notice a question about the results of Medicare data matching, which the federal health department warned private hospitals in April that it was using to monitor elective surgery activity and investigate any suspected breaches.

The NSW Health department is not investigating the appropriateness of surgeries performed during the ban, only making adjustments to the viability support payments private hospitals receive based on how much revenue they lost during the shutdown.

A spokeswoman for NSW Health said that the amounts of Commonwealth viability payments made to private hospitals during the ban were based on estimates which it made, with final payments “adjusted accordingly”.

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