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Abbott orders HIV handling probe -

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Abbott orders HIV handling probe

Reporter: Heather Ewart

KERRY O'BRIEN: Victoria's public health service is in for a sweeping overhaul, after controversies
that yesterday culminated in the sacking of the State's top health official. The State Minister for
Human Services, Bronwyn Pike, herself now under pressure to resign, has ordered an independent
review of every HIV case handled by her department after it emerged officers had failed to notify
her of cases now being investigated by police. But HIV experts and Government advisers, both in
Canberra and interstate, accuse Victoria of being complacent and lacking leadership in dealing with
HIV and the Federal Minister for Health, Tony Abbott, has ordered an investigation into whether
national standards need to be upgraded. The number of AIDS cases being reported in Victoria is on
the increase compared to other States. Heather Ewart reports.

HEATHER EWART: The day after Victoria's Chief Health Officer was sacked was the day it also emerged
Victoria had a serious problem on its hands, with a growing number of HIV cases.

Australia wasn't surprised that Dr Death happened in Queensland. If it was going to happen
anywhere, that's where it was going to happen, just as if there was going to be a major HIV
disaster, it was always going to happen in Victoria, because Victoria has been the most complacent
of all the States.

TONY ABBOTT, FEDERAL HEALTH MINISTER: There does seem to be an issue in Victoria and I think that's
been reflected in the events down there over the last 24 hours.

MICHAEL KENNEDY, VICTORIAN AIDS COUNCIL: We just can't get an answer about what's going on here. We
don't know. Our sense is that something is very badly broken here.

BRONWYN PIKE, VICTORIAN HEALTH MINISTER: We know this is a challenge. We know this is a problem,
and that's why we're dealing with it.

HEATHER EWART: But are they? It was delays in reporting four deaths of elderly patients at a
Melbourne nursing home after a suspected salmonella outbreak that was the final downfall of
Victoria's Chief Health Officer, Dr Robert Hall. This, though, was simply the catalyst for a much
bigger controversy. The State Minister for Human Services was furious. He'd also delayed notifying
her of police investigations into the behaviour of a number of HIV positive men.

BRONWYN PIKE: Given the sensitivity of this issue, given that the police had files, given that
there had been some problems with communication, it's clearly totally unacceptable that I didn't
know about every single dealing that my department had, no matter how big or how small, with this
group of people, and that's the reason why I've taken this very decisive action.

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: I think his position had become untenable. It was inevitable that someone was
going to have to be the fall guy for these mistakes.

HEATHER EWART: It was the case of an HIV positive man, Michael John Neal, accused of infecting two
men with HIV and trying to infect another 14 with the virus, that first hit the public eye when he
was arrested last year. That's despite 10 complaints to the Department of Human Services since late
2001, and an expert panel's calls for him to be detained. The department, though, failed to act.
Early last year, police raided the department after it refused to hand over documents relating to
the Neal case. A pattern was emerging here.

TED BAILLIEU, VICTORIAN OPPOSITION LEADER: This is an issue about the failure of the Department of
Health here to deal with this in a way which protected the public interest. When the Victoria
Police felt it was necessary to raid the department.

BRONWYN PIKE: Well, I certainly was aware that there were problems with my department's dealing
with HIV cases 12 months ago, and I've been very open about that.

REPORTER: So why didn't you do something about it?

BRONWYN PIKE: Well, what I did at the time was I did order a complete investigation and I also had
all of the protocols for dealing with HIV cases at that time reviewed and implemented.

HEATHER EWART: Well, that clearly didn't work, because the minister says it was only last Friday
she became aware of further police investigations into another three cases her department had
played a role in. None of this came as any surprise to those AIDS groups and monitoring bodies both
here and in other States.

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Heather, we have known there's a problem in Victoria since mid-2001, when the
rate of sexually transmitted disease in gay men started to increase. So this is nothing new. The
problem has been around for six years, it just hasn't been addressed and we're now facing a rate of
HIV in Victoria as high as it was in the mid-1980s, when things were at its worst. So what it shows
is a very deep malaise and inaction.

HEATHER EWART: How has it come to this?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: It's a very good question because, just over the border in NSW, they had the
same problem four to five years ago. They acted, and they've got their rates of HIV down. Victoria
hasn't acted, and we've got a diabolical situation.

MIKE KENNEDY: What we have seen is a government that hasn't been able to deal successfully with the
rises and put a program in place to address them.

HEATHER EWART: The minister, Bronwyn Pike, points to an announcement made last October to increase
AIDS funding by around $3 million, yet there doesn't appear to have been any rush to get the moths
out of the Government's pockets.

HEATHER EWART: Has any of that money been spent yet?

BRONWYN PIKE: We in fact have been working through a process of determining where that money should
go, and I have certainly signed off on a number of projects that will be allocated that money.

MIKE KENNEDY: When the minister announced additional money last year, we don't know what they're
using to assess the proposals they're getting, which is why two months after the bids have closed
we still don't know what's happening with that money.

HEATHER EWART: The Federal minister, Tony Abbott, is on his latest charity bike ride through rural
NSW. He's asked a Government advisory committee to look at upgrading national standards to deal
with the handling of HIV cases.

TONY ABBOTT: It is important that we have a national approach on something like this, otherwise
things could be missed.

HEATHER EWART: And it may be the fresh air, but unlike his State counterparts, he's not calling for
Bronwyn Pike's resignation.

TONY ABBOTT: Look, I think plainly this is very embarrassing for the Victorian Government but, on
the other hand, ministers do very much depend upon the official advice that they get and if she
wasn't getting the advice, it's hard to know how she can be held personally responsible.

KERRY O'BRIEN: That report from Heather Ewart.