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Medibank boss in damage control over patient priority views

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Medibank Private boss George Savvides has been forced into damage control after AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler revealed he had argued that patients with private health insurance should get priority treatment in public hospital emergency departments.

In a major addresss to federal parliamentarians last week, A/Professor Owler recounted comments made by Mr Savvides in a speech to an AMA forum in March in which the Medibank chief talked about preferential treatment for the privately insured.

“Among a number of other topics, he tried to tell us that they [Medibank Private] wanted patients with private insurance in a public hospital emergency department to receive priority,” the AMA President recalled.

“His question was: ‘If your son breaks his arm and goes to the emergency department, and you have private health insurance, why shouldn’t little Johnny get priority?’

“Well, to his surprise, that was not well received.”

Instead, A/Professor Owler said, the view of doctors was that patients should be treated according to clinical urgency rather than insurance status.

“Our emergency department doctors are not going to make a more deserving patient wait because little Johnny’s parents have private insurance.

“Now, our speaker was a little taken aback by the rejection [in the room], but also by the strength of the rejection.”

A Medibank spokeswoman told Guardian Australia that Mr Savvides’ comments had been taken out of context.

“[Mr Savvides’] comments were misrepresented,” she said. “He doesn’t agree with those comments.”

The insurer also issued a statement in which it said Medibank “does not believe that private health insurance members should get priority in emergency departments”.

“We expect people in most need of emergency treatment, regardless of their personal circumstances, should be given priority.”

But A/Professor Owler stood his ground and vigorously denied claims he had misrepresented Mr Savvides’ comments, which he said had been heard both 30 other doctors also in the audience at the March function.

“He was standing at the podium speaking when he said those comments,” the AMA President said.

“Perhaps his comments don’t represent Medibank’s official position, but I was just reiterating the comments he made during his speech.

“If he doesn’t believe it, then he shouldn’t have said it, but I know that’s what was said and so do the other doctors present.”

Adrian Rollins