03 Feb 2021

Commissioner marks four years of safeguarding health care for Victorians

This month marks the fourth anniversary of the office of the Victorian Health Complaints Commissioner.

The inaugural Health Complaints Commissioner, Karen Cusack, said 1 February 2017 was a significant milestone, marking the introduction of new legislation to deal with complaints about the provision of health services in Victoria.

Commissioner Cusack’s role brought with it increased and wide-ranging powers under the Health Complaints Act 2016, including the power to launch investigations and to take action following an investigation, as well as issuing prohibition orders on general health service providers.

Complaints remain the main focus of the office of the Health Complaints Commissioner (HCC) and the name change of the legislation highlights that.

As well as introducing stronger regulatory powers to investigate more serious matters, the Health Complaints Act 2016 also introduced more flexible processes for dealing with complaints through its alternative dispute resolution functions.

In its first full financial year of operation, the HCC received 7,425 complaints – representing a 65 per cent increase on the 4,490 complaints received by the former Office of the Health Services Commissioner during 2016-17.

Since inception the types of complaints received by the HCC have changed, with an increase in complaints regarding general, or non-registered, health service providers. This category includes all practitioners not regulated by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra), including counsellors, massage therapists, cosmetic treatment services, speech pathologists, alternative health practitioners and many more.

In 2019-2020, the HCC’s fourth year of operation, the impact of the COVID-19 restrictions resulted in many health care providers closing or operating at a reduced capacity. Even so, the Commissioner’s office received only 480 fewer complaints than the previous year during such a highly unusual environment.

Ms Cusack has attributed the success of the office to the resilience and commitment of her staff. “Even when staff moved quickly to remote working, they continued to provide our services for all Victorians, unabated and with dedication to our purpose during a global pandemic,” she said.

A significant milestone was the gazettal of the Complaint Handling Standards in June 2020 – the culmination of extensive consultation and development. The Standards provide a common benchmark that all health service providers must meet when dealing with complaints made to them and provide consistency for consumers.

Along with increased numbers of complaints and enquiries received during the four years, the HCC has also commenced 140 investigations in the period from 1 February 2017 to 31 January 2021.

“There is an enormous amount of work that goes into building a case for a successful investigation or prosecution,” Ms Cusack said.

“This includes gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, and in some cases executing search warrants and preparing investigation reports and briefs of evidence and making findings and recommendations to health services. It is important to make the distinction between dealing with complaints, and conducting investigations,” she said.

“Complaints resolution is a voluntary process and a genuine alternative to legal proceedings which relies on the agreement and participation of all parties. However, an investigation is at my discretion and involves enforcement and compliance powers,” Ms Cusack explains. “Accordingly, these powers are only exercised in the most serious of cases.”

The Health Complaints Act 2016 also allows for matters to be referred to the Commissioner by the Minister for Health, by either House of Parliament or by a Parliamentary Committee.

The Commissioner has completed three major inquiries referred to her by the Minister and on completing her inquiry, the Commissioner may make recommendations.

- Following a major review of privately funded alcohol and other drug treatment services across Victoria, which commenced in 2018, the Commissioner’s report is now being considered by the government.

- The Inquiry into Reproductive Treatment (ART) Practices in Victoria was also finalised and the comprehensive report into this sector was released on 29 January 2021.

- The Commissioner also conducted an inquiry into ‘gay conversion therapy’ or ‘ex-gay ideology’ practices, that was finalised in late 2018. The State Government has accepted the recommendations made in that report and, as a result, the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 is currently before Parliament. If passed, the Bill will prohibit conversion therapy from being offered or provided to any person.

In keeping with the increased demand for HCC services over the four years, staff numbers have increased from 24 in 2017 to more than 50 currently, including an expanded investigations team.

“The continuing professionalism and patience of my staff in managing an increasing workload is commendable,” Ms Cusack said. “I thank them for maintaining such a strong commitment to our important work.”

Ms Cusack said she was proud of her office’s positive impact on the experiences and outcomes of health service consumers and providers in Victoria during the past four years.

“The past four years have marked a significant phase for my office as it fully embraces its powers and responsibilities to protect Victorians from unsafe and unethical health service providers under the Health Complaints Act 2016, as well as educating health service providers about their responsibilities,” she said.

“While not every complaint we receive can be resolved to the satisfaction of all involved, I am proud of the positive outcomes we have achieved in so many cases, as well as the important role we have played in supporting people to resolve complaints themselves.”

Ms Cusack said she was optimistic about the further development of the services her office can offer, noting that much of the first four years has been about building capacity within the office and on “firmly making our mark within the Victorian health sector.”

She went on to say, “While there is a role for my office in unsafe and unethical health care, it is important not to lose sight of the extremely high quality and exceptional standard of health care to which we have access, in Victoria and throughout Australia.”

“We will continue taking action as a result of conducting investigations, including prosecuting offences and further refining our complaint handling process,” Ms Cusack said. “However, a key priority for my office is continuing to raise awareness of our service – especially among general health service providers and underrepresented sectors of the Victorian public."

“We want to work with health service providers and the public to ensure health services in Victoria are the best they can be,” she said.

“I am excited about the future role of our office and look forward to continuing the work that we do.”

For more information on the services offered by the office of the Health Complaints Commissioner, and on how to lodge a complaint, visit: hcc.vic.gov.au