Health Department workers in West Australia have received $745,000 worth of gifts, business class flights and hotel accommodations from drug and device makers, many of which sell meds and equipment to area hospitals,The West Australian reports. According to documents revealed in Parliament, between last July and April 6, there 259 instances in which perks - including champagne, iPads, flights and hotel packages to Paris, Vienna, Montreal and Los Angeles - were accepted.
More than half of the gifts or trips were accepted by staff from the South Metropolitan Area Health Service, which is headed by Nicole Feely, a former chief of staff to former Prime Minister John Howard, the paper writes. And the goodies included return business-class flights to New Orleans and six nights accommodation worth $15,244 paid for by Merck.
Meanwhile, three North Metropolitan Area Health Service employees each accepted return business-class flights and three-night stays in Los Angeles worth a total of $28,488, the paper adds. And this was paid for by Abbott Australasia, which has no existing relationship with the department. SMAHS staff also accepted five bottles of Veuve Clicquot champagne worth $400 from Paxon Group, a management consulting firm that has a health and biotech practice.
Two years ago, Director-General Peter Flett, who was WA's top health bureaucrat at the time, warned that accepting trips can give the wrong impression. Employees were supposed to flag potential conflicts and health officials were supposed to veto travel in the event of a real or perceived conflict. But the tone appears to have changed under Director-General Kim Snowball. He says the companies signed a letter acknowledging the trip did not place any obligations on docs or the health service.
Moreover, he maintains trips to New Orleans, Switzerland, Vienna and the US were taken by senior clinical staff and were approved through appropriate channels, the paper continues. Two were for conferences, one was for a meeting of an international clinical trial group and two others allowed cardiologists to watch cutting-edge procedures not practised in Australia. "These are actually people who are trying to keep on top of the new techniques that are coming out," he tells a radio station.
"I think it's now up to the director-general of health and the public sector commissioner to look at this situation but, again, I think every case, to my knowledge, has gone through a proper process," WA Premier Colin Barnett tells The Sydney Morning Herald. "Do the rules need to be changed? Perhaps, but I don't think we're talking about something that's new. Public servants have often travelled and this question often comes up."
But opposition politicians demand an inquiry and so Health Minister Kim Hames has referred the travel activities to the Public Sector Commission and the department's gifts policy is purportedly under review.
champagne thx to jmrosenfeld on flickr