Direct action needed to save medevac system

A community forum in Sydney has called on people to take direct action to ensure the medical evacuation system for refugees on Manus and Nauru is at least not made worse.

The aim is to make it better.

The two key speakers urged people to write to federal Senators, particularly Senator Jacquie Lambie (Ind., Tas) appealing for them to vote to keep medevac.

The relatively new medevac laws allow Australian-based doctors to recommend a refugee or asylum seeker offshore be transferred to Australia for health care. The Home Affairs minister, Peter Dutton, can refuse if he disagrees with the clinical assessment – in which case it goes to an independent medical panel for review – or on security or criminal grounds. The panel cannot override vetoes based on security or criminal concerns.

The speakers were the former Member of the House of Representatives for Wentworth, Dr Kerryn Phelps, who was one of the architects of the medevac legislation, and the new director and principal solicitor, Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS), Sarah Dale.

RACS is a dedicated service supporting refugees and people seeking asylum.

Phelps outlined the legislation process, and what was behind it: 12 people have died in offshore detention centres since the policy was implemented in 2014.

Medevac has accelerated the transfer of patients in critical need from Manus or Nauru. It only applies to the current cohort of asylum seekers, and the minister has 72 hours to decide whether to approve a transfer – or not – on security grounds.

Phelps said the government made no provision to implement transfers under medevac so a response group of independent doctors, psychiatrists and allied health formed the Medical Evacuation Response Group, MERG. https://merg.org.au

Voluntary but urgent advice

Through MERG, medics from throughout Australia voluntarily give advice to detention centre doctors. A side benefit is that the input from doctors provides another window into what goes on in the detention centres which are notoriously hard to access. In past years, medical staff have been threatened with jail for speaking out about the poor physical facilities endured by people who have not committed a crime, and the daily mental assault of living in a time warp without any prospect of an end point.

Recently a new bill to repeal the medevac legislation passed the House of Representatives, despite 73 submissions against, and just one for. The bill will be considered by the Senate in November.

Dale said RACS acts for, stands for and seeks justice for people seeking asylum, including children without parents. She gave examples of deaths on Manus, where the outcome may have been different with quicker access to high quality medical care.

Before the medevac system was in place, in a secret recording, a doctor spoke of his frustrations in getting a transfer for his sick patient. “The system is broken,” he said.

Phelps and Dale are encouraging people to write to Senators, particularly Senator Jacquie Lambie, appealing for them to vote to keep medevac. It is working. The adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

There will be a Save Medevac Rally at 2 pm Saturday 9 November at Sydney Town Hall

it is being organised by Refugee Action Coalition, 0417275713 info@refugeeaction.org.au

– report by Diana Simmons, CLA member 25 October 2019

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