Health inquiry is welcome, long overdue, and still short of the mark
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Health inquiry is welcome, long overdue, and still short of the mark

The territory government is to be congratulated for its belated decision to conduct an independent review into ACT Health's troubled culture.

Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris has come a long way since labelling an opposition call for a board of inquiry, the closest the ACT can get to a royal commission, "a political stunt" just weeks ago.

Her change of heart was hot on the heels of a call by the Australian Medical Association ACT for a judicial inquiry - another name for a board of inquiry - into ACT Health citing a wide range of issues.

These included the sudden departure of the previous director general; a damning Auditor General's report into ACT Health's handling of bullying allegations concerning the previous director general; the many failures identified in the first accreditation report for Canberra Hospital earlier this year; the decision to split ACT Health in two; allegations of bullying and harassment at both The Canberra Hospital and Calvary; issues with radiology training accreditation and blow outs in waiting times.

Now, having conceded an independent review is the best way to restore public confidence by identifying, and then addressing, systemic problems that have festered for years, Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Fitzharris need to explain why they are stopping short of a board of inquiry.

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There is a real risk another review, the latest of many internal studies, reports and probes commissioned over the years, could degenerate into a waste of health service staff time and public money.

There is no guarantee the results would be made public or that, in regard to sensitive issues such as bullying, those most severely impacted could be induced to testify.

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If, as the government claims, it is sincere in its desire to identify and resolve the problems that have dogged ACT Health for much of this century, surely it wants to do the job properly.

That, in the view of AMA ACT, the ACT opposition and this newspaper, requires nothing less than a fully-fledged board of inquiry that has the power to require documents to be produced, compel witnesses to appear and which would grant them legal protections.

There are, as yet, no guarantees all, or any, of these requirements would be met by the two-part process outlined by Fitzharris on Monday.

All that has been pledged to date is a review "tasked with independently investigating and reporting on ... cultural and behavioural issues as they relate to ACT Health Services... chaired by an external eminent person" that would report back to government with recommendations in six months' time.

This would be backed up by a "Clinical Leadership Forum" drawing on representatives from hospitals and the broader health sector and reporting back to the minister.

While a vast improvement on what has been offered by this government until now, these measures are still a soft option that could give responsible politicians and administrators scope to evade the consequences of past poor decision making.

If the job of getting ACT Health back on track is worth doing then it is worth doing well.

Nothing less than a full fledged board of inquiry which would be at arms length from the ACT government is up to that task.