Last week news of Biala’s closure and miscommunication, “misinterpretation” and obvious contradictions over plans discussed between the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on HIV/AIDS and the Metro North Hospital and Health Service (MNHHS) angered and confused members of the LGBTI community and the Queensland Nurses Union (QNU).
Following the news on March 19 that the MNHHS would be closing Brisbane’s only free sexual health clinic, the head of the MAC, Dr Darren Russell, convened an emergency meeting of the MAC where they agreed to ensure HIV services within Biala would remain “unchanged”. Dr Russell claimed that the MAC and MNHHS had come to an understanding.
There were embarrassing developments later that week when it was revealed that, along with the total closure of Biala’s general STI testing and treatment service in Clinic 1, a loss of four nursing positions within the specialist HIV service, Clinic 2, were still being planned by MNHHS, contradicting Russell’s statement.
Russell had also assured that free walk-in services would be maintained, however in a press release, the MNHHS indicated these would be temporary.
The closure and cutbacks at Biala angered members of the LGBTI community and the QNU, which led to a protest rally held on March 24. Speakers and protesters urged the MNHHS to leave Biala completely untouched, saying they believed any cut to the centre would severely compromise the community’s health and HIV/AIDS prevention measures.
The next day, Russell claimed that he was “lied to” by the MNHSS in a quote to Fairfax Media and said in another statement that the cuts were offensive to people with HIV/AIDS.
“After coming to what I thought was a good arrangement to maintain HIV services ‘as is’, MNHHS has reneged on the deal and are planning massive staff cuts which will not allow the HIV service to be maintained. This is appalling behaviour from Metro North HHS and deeply insulting to people living with HIV and to the MAC,” Dr Russell told the Star Observer.
Following pressure from the LGBTI community and QNU, a meeting with Russell and head of the MNHHS, Dr Paul Alexander, was held on March 26. Afterwards, Alexander announced that an independent audit into HIV services at Biala would be conducted and completed by June 30.
“I would like to clarify, so it is not misinterpreted, that we will continue to provide a comprehensive HIV service that the community requires and will do so with the appropriate staff,” Alexander said in a statement.
“We will be undertaking an independent audit to ensure the HIV service is appropriate, including a review of staffing numbers with the possibility of a contestability outcome.”
Russell said that the MAC and MNHHS were now in agreement over maintaining HIV services at Biala.
“I have now clarified the details for the HIV service at Metro North Hospital and Health Service and I am comfortable that an independent audit is being performed. It is important that there are accessible HIV services for the prevention and treatment of HIV. These services are essential for the community,” Russell said.
The Australasian Society for HIV Medicine (ASHM) condemned the proposed cuts to Biala and welcomed the audit.
“The recently announced cuts to sexual health and HIV services at this crucial time, is a disaster… The Minister must ensure that there is a viable HIV and Sexual Health service in the Capital as well as across the state”, ASHM president Professor Edwina Wright said.