ABC Radio Sunshine Coast
Two days ago we spoke with Natalie Lang from the Australian Services Union about a campaign the union is running called ‘No Profit From Rape’.
The campaign, while it has a confronting name is all about investigating the future of the 1800RESPECT National Hotline. This is a number that women, men and children can call if necessary if they have been victims of rape or sexual assault.
When you call that number right now you get put straight through to a trained rape and sexual assault counsellor – immediately.
Natalie was questioning the future of the service. She says in two weeks’ time that service could be privatised and I have the Social Services Minister with me now – Christian Porter.
Minister, good morning and thanks for joining us on the program.
You’ve labelled this campaign via the union ‘No Profit From Rape’ as disgusting. Why?
Well, what Natalie Lang said was that it’s allowing a private insurance company to make a profit from rape.
So here’s the facts of the situation - The 1800RESPECT line has, since it was created in 2010, been run by Medibank Health Solutions. A by and large they’ve done a very good job.
About 18 months ago when the volume of calls increased, there were problems with call abandonment, so wait times were so long that people were giving up. Unfortunately two thirds of all the calls to the hotline in 2015, about 67 per cent were being abandoned.
What Medibank Health Solutions do, is they sub-contract the actually counselling services to a non-government organisation, a not-for-profit if you want to call it that, and there were difficulties in the administration and the way in which these calls were being triaged – being sorted at first instance when they came in…
This is the rape and domestic violence service that you’re talking about?
So the Government invested a very large amount of money, and massively increased the base funding for the 1800RESPECT line. We commissioned reports that looked at best practice around the world, and what was determined to do was have what’s known as a first responder triage model, so that when someone calls in, they get – first of all they get very experienced counsellors, so three year tertiary education plus at least two years’ experience in counselling and that person determines the nature of the call, the level of need.
Now if one of the 25 per cent that require acute trauma counselling, then that would happen immediately in a three way conversation so that the first counsellor would brief the second counsellor whilst the person was on the phone about what the issue was, and that would occur.
What we’ve been able to do through that process is decrease the average call wait time by about ten minutes. 77 per cent are now answered within 20 seconds. The call wait time average is now 45 seconds, gone down from ten minutes – and that call abandonment rate is now tiny compared to where it was. We have 92 per cent of the calls – that’s a snapshot in December – being answered.
So Medibank Health Solutions have always run 1800RESPECT. They’ve always contracted to a specialist counselling service, and it’s that contract now that is being opened and re-tendered for.
What are the chances of the rape and domestic violence service that currently has that contract having its contract renewed given that these are world class – Natalie Lang calls them specialist rape and sexual assault counsellors that – they’ve really set the benchmark for this kind of service.
With respect, before these reforms came in the service was not operating in the way it was intended to operate and too many calls were going unanswered.
But was that a matter of funding Minister, or a lack of funding and just a lack of staff to answer phones?
No it wasn’t merely that.
What it was, was that there was no ability to triage and make assessments when the calls first came in.
What happens is there are, obviously, thousands and thousands of calls that come in to the 1800RESPECT line, not all of them requiring intense trauma counselling. Some of them are family and friends seeking information, some are victims seeking information about housing and a whole range of other matters.
So about 25 per cent fall into the acute trauma category and the other 75 per cent didn’t.
Unfortunately the system was operating so that there was absolutely no assessment made at the early stages. What that meant was that 67 per cent of people weren’t getting through – many of those would have been requiring acute trauma counselling, but were having to wait so long they were giving up and not getting through to any counselling at all.
So what you’re saying though is that, since you have triaged the service, if you like, it’s still been the rape and domestic violence service that is actually running the contract and the service has improved, so why wouldn’t their contract be renewed under MHS?
This is a standard tender process that happens across government with enormous regularity. It’s been run in this instance by Medibank Health Solutions, who are responsible for that sub-contract. I understand that Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia will be one of the parties contracting to provide the trauma counselling, and yes they are very good trauma counsellors.
But of course there are a whole range of other organisations – not-for-profit, non-government organisations across Australia – who might also like to be able to tender for that work and put forward their cases to how they might be able to do it even better.
I guess the concern there is that they may not have the level of qualification and ability to respond to women and men and children in need who call that number.
Medibank Health Solutions are only going to choose a contractor to do – or the group to do – the actual counselling who are absolutely world’s best practice in terms of their qualifications and experience.
There’s absolutely no evidence to the contrary.
All you have here is a complaint about the fact that there is a process by which there’s some regular ability for other groups to put their hand up for the work.
When will this process – the tender process – be completed?
Its run by Medibank Health Solutions, I think it’s a standard 30-day tender process after an expression of interest period - again, completely standard.
But the notion – if I can just go back to it – that having Medibank Health Solutions run 1800RESPECT, which has happened since 2010, is a situation where – in the words of Natalie Lang – a private insurance company makes profit from rape, that is a despicable thing to say.
I used to be a prosecutor, a public prosecutor who worked at the DPP and I prosecuted many rape matters and put many people in jail for that terrible crime, and I did that alongside private barristers who were contracted by the DPP’s around Australia. Now to suggest that those people, because they are private rather than public contractors, are profiteering off rape – that is a ridiculous thing to say. I just think that this has just gone so far, for reasons that I can’t explain.
What is the Government’s ongoing commitment to that service in terms of funding?
Well the Government provided $9 million extra funding for 1800RESPECT in 15/16
That’s correct, we’ve committed about $10 million this financial year.
So we’ve radically increased – and as ongoing funding we’ve radically increased the base funding for 1800RESPECT, and reformed the model in which the service is delivered – in the way that I’ve described, so that we can make sure now that rather than having average wait times of 10 minutes, that we’ve got average wait times of 45 seconds.
This is a remarkable success story in terms of a Government reform to provide better services to people at their most acute times of need, and yet the criticism of it from Natalie Lang at the ASU is so intemperate and so unfair to all the people at MHS who have helped create this world’s best 1800 domestic violence hotline. It really, in my view, deserves an apology to those people.
Christian Porter, thanks for giving us your view this morning.