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Concerns private sector will turn a deaf ear to need

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Parents of hearing-impaired children have voiced alarm that the Government agency tasked with providing publicly-funded hearing services might be privatised.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has appointed PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct a scoping study into the possible sell-off of Australian Hearing, which provides taxpayer-funded hearing assessments, hearing device fittings and counselling and rehabilitation programs for children with permanent and long-term hearing loss as well as adult concession card holders, veterans and Indigenous peoples, through more than 490 centres nationwide.

Australian Hearing received $56 million in the 2012-13 Budget to provide services.

While the Government insists no decision has been made to privatise the statutory authority, parent groups are concerned the terms of reference set by the Finance Minister for the study predispose it to recommend the agency’s sale.

The terms include “the identification of options for continued ownership [and] for a potential sale”, including the minimisation of any residual risks and liabilities for the Commonwealth and the maximisation of benefits to the Government.

In a statement, three parent groups, Parents of Deaf Children, Aussie Deaf Kids and Canberra Deaf Children’s Association, have warned that “it is of considerable concern that the objectives [of the study] leave little doubt as to the preferred outcome – to sell Australian Hearing in order to maximise financial benefit to the Government”.

The groups have prepared a joint submission in which they argue against any sell-off on the grounds that it is likely to result in a diminution of services.

Aussie Deaf Kids founder Ann Porter said the system was built around the fact that children suffering hearing loss could access Australian Hearing services, regardless of where they lived and their family’s financial position.

“It is naïve to believe that a private provider could deliver this diverse level of service to Australian children with hearing loss, given Australian Hearing’s buying power, and the high cost and low returns of providing these services, especially in regional and remote locations,” Parents of Deaf Children President Leonie Jackson said.

In announcing the scoping study, the Government noted that current arrangements meant Australian Hearing was simultaneously responsible to two departments. It is contracted by Health to deliver hearing services through a voucher program and a community service obligation, while being accountable to Human Services for its financial performance.

“These arrangements sometimes create conflicting pressure for AHS when trying to balance commercial drivers,” the Finance Department said.

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, in June Health Minister Peter Dutton told Parliament the scoping study had been commissioned to “make sure that we are getting money away from bureaucratic services and back to front-line services”.

Adrian Rollins