The independent group of doctors overseeing refugee medical transfer decisions — which the government is determined to disband — has upheld government decisions in the majority of cases, a new report reveals.
The medical care of refugees and asylum seekers held in Australia's offshore island detention centres has become a central political issue in recent years. Many detainees suffer physical and mental health issues and cannot receive adequate treatment in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, but a hardline government policy for years banned them from entering Australia under all but the most extreme circumstances.
That hardline policy was undermined by the so-called "medevac law", passed against the government's wishes in March 2019, aimed at making it easier for refugees to secure a transfer to Australia.
The law created the Independent Health Advice Panel (IHAP). When a government minister disagrees with the opinion of consulting doctors that a person held in offshore detention must be brought to Australia, the IHAP, consisting of seven senior doctors, reviews the case.
Between July and September, the panel agreed with the government’s refusal to transfer refugees in 45 cases, of the 57 cases the doctors considered. It overruled the minister in 12 cases, according to the group’s third quarterly report, which was tabled in parliament on Wednesday.
The Coalition government wants to wind back the medevac law, which it claims weakens Australia’s borders and national security, and is working to win the critical vote of independent senator Jacqui Lambie. The bill to repeal medevac passed the House of Representatives in July and is yet to come to a vote in the Senate.
The two previous quarterly reports show that the panel had previously overruled the minister in six cases, and agreed that transfer should be refused in nine cases.
The new report shows that in the three-month period 96 people came to Australia from PNG under medevac. Eight people were brought over from Nauru under the medevac law, and 16 others were medically evacuated under old procedures.
Two members of the panel were set to travel to PNG last month, where they planned to inspect medical facilities and explore the lack of in-person interpreters available for people being transferred, especially those with mental health issues.
The panel and department agreed that interpretation over the phone “was not an acceptable option for these people and could be a genuine impediment to providing sound clinical treatment and care,” according to the report.
The panel raised concerns with the Department of Home Affairs that there were delays between treating doctors recommending that patients be taken to Australia, and those recommendations being referred to immigration minister David Coleman or home affairs minister Peter Dutton.
Nauru and PNG are also acting as barriers to the medevac system, the report suggests. The panel raised its annoyance with the lack of movement from Nauru when it recommends a transfer.
“The Panel understands the process involved; however, they are frustrated at the lack of progress on individual cases,” the report notes.
The panel was only referred one case from Nauru in that quarter and recommended the transfer be approved.
PNG has detained more than 50 asylum seekers who have not been declared refugees in its new Bomana Immigration Centre. A dozen people accepted for transfer to Australia under medevac have not been released.
The panel also inquired about support provided to those people who applied for medevac but were rebuffed. The doctors told the department that they wanted everyone in offshore detention to have “regular preventative general practitioner reviews”.
The government has two sitting weeks left in 2019 to get its way and repeal medevac, reverting to the old system where bureaucrats decided who would get a medical transfer.