THE Queensland Health Minister has been accused of “two-faced” discriminatory practice involving Queensland AIDS Council and their being made to pay for rapid HIV testing kits while other health service providers access them for free.
The remarks came from leading Brisbane-based HIV and AIDS specialist Dr Wendell Rosevear, who, in a statement to the Star Observer, criticised state health minister Lawrence Springborg of unfair treatment to the organisation he defunded in 2012.
However, in February this year Queensland Health informed QuAC that they would be required to purchase testing kits direct from the supplier, Alere.
“We were required to purchase our rapid tests directly from Alere, from fundraising initiatives of the Queensland AIDS Council,” QuAC acting executive director Michael Scott told the Star Observer.
“There was an accreditation process that we needed to complete before we could purchase rapid tests, this process took a total of seven weeks. Our first rapid test purchase from Alere was completed on March 27.”
According to Scott, if QuAC did not have a surplus number of kits, the time from the end of the trial and the kit-purchasing process could have left the organisation without a means to conduct rapid testing for about four or five weeks.
Scott added that QuAC’s Tuesday Testing Point service conducts an average of 15-20 tests each week.
While QuAC is now required to purchase its kits at a cost of $1800 per pack of 100, numerous other government, government-affiliated and non-government groups and organisations are not required to pay for theirs.
The Community HIV Education and Prevention Program (CHEPP), which is operated and facilitated by Queensland Positive People (QPP) and used by the HIV Foundation Queensland (HIVFQ), do not pay for kits used at their new testing clinics.
“Whilst the CHEPP Program is an initiative of the HIV Foundation Queensland it is funded directly by the Department of Health as a departmental program. As such the Department of Health is providing tests for this purpose,” CHEPP’s Scott Brown told the Star Observer.
The Stonewall Medical Centre in Newmarket and the Gladstone Road Medical Centre in Highgate Hill, both of which are not funded by the government, also receive free testing kits for their rapid HIV testing services.
Shadow Health Minster Jo Ann Miller said Springborg was “less open and honest” about the treatment of QuAC, compared to his END HIV campaign.
“Minister Springborg has made much of his END HIV campaign and the roll out of rapid HIV testing kits,” she told the Star Observer.
“Why are some community providers of rapid HIV testing being told to pay for their testing kits while others are provided them free by Queensland Health?”
Drawing attention to the recent Queensland budget, Miller said Borg needed to explain why “barriers are placed in front of some community groups” in the roll out of rapid HIV testing.
“6000 testing kits were budgeted for in 2013/14 by Queensland Health but only 1300 tests were actually conducted,” she said.
“That’s an awful lot of spare kits that have already been paid for that could now be distributed to community organisations.”
South Brisbane state Labor MP Jackie Trad urged the Health Minister to work with everyone involved in the HIV sector.
“Why is the Health Minister picking fights and penalising people… instead of fostering strong relationships in the best interests of those that rely on these services?” she said.
Dr Rosevear, who previously held a position on the predecessor to HIVFQ – the Ministerial Advisory Committee – before he resigned in protest of how he believed the group had become “a rubber stamp” for the health minister, said in his statement that if the Queensland Government was serious about wanting more testing, they needed “to act to support the people doing it, especially volunteering to do it, not just talk”.
“Mr Springborg and HIVFQ are proud of Queensland leading the way in access to testing but the facts are that QuAC was the first place in Queensland to trial and run rapid testing and for more than two years has had an accessible HIV testing site run by volunteers doctors and volunteer support workers,” Dr Rosevear said.
“I can’t understand why now the Queensland Government wants to only charge QuAC for rapid tests. If the government is serious about increasing access to testing and the prevention of HIV transmission, it is time that Mr Springborg allow the Testing Point clinic to be listed on the END HIV website and support them having access to free rapid tests like the sites run by QPP, HIVFQ and the high case load GP clinics.
“Any other position is discriminatory.”
Dr Rosevear highlighted that close partnerships between governments and key-affected community groups and organisations is crucial in the HIV response.
“Australia has had a world-enviable response to HIV prevention from working together. The Queensland Government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars producing good advertisements against discrimination,” he said.
“It is two-faced to then discriminate against QuAC while funding organisations that are gagged by the government, when we expect the democratic Australian way to be based on a belief in ‘fair go, mate’.
In regards to the recent Memorandum of Understanding between the Queensland Government and a Canadian HIV centre from Vancouver, Dr Rosevear said that governments should include everyone in the prevention and treatment discussion.
“I don’t understand why the government wants to sign agreements to work with [the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS] but not work cooperatively with a group of willing volunteers from the affected community in our own backyard,” he said.
“HIV can be beaten by working together and valuing everyone.”
The Star Observer contacted the Health Minister’s office on numerous occasions but no reply was given at the time of print.
(Main photo credit: Anthony Smith)