The Australian Society of Ophthalmologists (ASO) has supported the Indigenous and Remote Eye Health Service (IRIS) in the face of what it refers to as “unfair media defamation” by the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), which “disrespects the doctors, nurses and support staff who have a passion for treating Indigenous blindness”.
On 3 December 2019, the SMH published an article1 stating, “Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt awarded a AU$2.2 million contract to a company connected to prominent Liberal Party donors and a former candidate to conduct Indigenous eye surgeries at double the market rate.
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 programme
“The contract, which never went to tender and emerged from an unsolicited proposal, was delivered despite the objections of a senior staff member… Mr Wyatt’s office was lobbied to approve the contract for 500 eye surgeries for the Indigenous and Remote Eye Health Service (IRIS) in 2018.”
IRIS is an initiative of Vanguard Health and is co-chaired by Dr Bill Glasson AO and Dr Ashish Agar. Other prominent Australian eye health professionals on the IRIS team include: Dr Angus Turner, Dr Tim Henderson AM, Rowan Churchill, Shaun Tatipata (Fred Hollows Foundation) and Joanna Barton from the NSW Outback Eye Service.2
In its article, the SMH states that Dr Glasson “received up to $1 million in funding from the Liberal National Party (LNP) in his bid to unseat former prime minister Kevin Rudd in his seat of Griffith” and that Vanguard Health is owned by Vanguard Consulting, a lobbying firm owned by Tim Gallagher. 1
It claims “Vanguard Health has donated at least $21,000 to the Liberal National Party of Queensland since 2009, including direct funding for Dr Glasson’s campaign”.1
In response to the article, Dr Peter Sumich, President of the Australian Society of Ophthalmologists said, “The ASO is extremely proud to be associated with IRIS” and suggested the case was “a politicised employment dispute within Minister Wyatt’s office”.
“IRIS is a practical example of ASO’s support for the ‘Closing the Gap’ national initiative to which our organisation is absolutely committed,” said Dr Peter Sumich.
“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.
“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.” Dr Sumich said.
Dr Ashish Agar, Vice President of the ASO said IRIS follows in the footsteps of great ophthalmologists such as the late Professor Fred Hollows, who believe in treating First Nations people in their own communities.
He said the $4000 per cataract surgery fee criticised by SMH as being “double the market rate” reflected the “whole service provided” to indigenous communities, which requires more time and extensive travel to remote locations when compared to regular cataract surgeries.
“We ask our eye surgeons to take time away from their city practice and go outback to operate on Indigenous Australians in the remotest outback locations. It is hard work, difficult surgery on complex cataracts and most city surgeons are not willing to commit to such time in these difficult conditions.
“The fee of $4000 mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald article refers to the whole service provided and therefore includes:
• Pre-operative clinic and post-operative care,
• consumables and operative eye fluids,
• intra-ocular lens implant,
• medical and nursing team,
• concessional surgeon fee,
• 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 bring them into town, and
• a team trained in cultural sensitivity on site 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.
Dr Sumich 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.
“The IRIS 1.0 programme was started in 2009 by the Rudd Labor Government and Health Minister Nicola Roxon during the settlement with ASO from the ‘Grandmas Not Happy’ cataract dispute.
“As part of the settlement, Minister Roxon asked for assistance from ophthalmologists in fixing the disastrously low cataract services in Indigenous and remote Australian communities. The ASO decided that money saved by the cataract rebate cut would go to Indigenous Cataract Surgery and Paediatric Eye Services.
“Both sides of politics have supported this programme since then. Mr Kerry Gallagher of Vanguard Health has been the driver and has administered his passion programme with dogged determination. The ASO has supported and lobbied for programme funding with all governments for the sole purpose of treating Indigenous blindness. The Australian Institute of Health & Welfare Report, Indigenous Eye Health Measures 20163 showed clearly how the ‘Gap’ had increased following the end of funding for the IRIS 1.0 project. Minister Wyatt and Minister 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 programme. I feel dreadfully hurt for these fine Australians who have had their reputations impugned.” Dr Sumich said.
1. Bagshaw, Eryk. The minister, the ex-Liberal candidate and the $2.2 million contract. Sourced: www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/the-minister-the-ex-liberal-candidate-and-the-2-2-million-contract-20191202-p53g0c.html
3. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, ‘Indigenous Eye Health Measures 2016’ published 30 May 2017.