In her response to my article in Red Flag, Nicole McMahon, the general manager at the Medibank-run 1800RESPECT (the National Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault line), presented a series of misstatements and distortions about Medibank’s current and historical involvement with 1800RESPECT.

McMahon’s main objection to my argument that the Liberal government has provided ten times the funding to a private provider to run the service is that under Medibank’s watch, “1800RESPECT is responding to more contacts than ever before”. 

McMahon cites misleading figures to back her claims. She suggests the Medibank-run service last year responded to far more callers than the previous service did in the 2015-16 financial year. Here’s the deception: she says “contacts” – not calls – to refer to the increased service numbers. “Contacts” includes online services as well as other types of contact, including emails or calls to other professionals. 

The figure she cites also omits the many people who called the service and left voice messages and had their calls returned, as well as those who called back later if they could not get through quickly. These contacts would be registered as unanswered calls.

McMahon’s figures also fail to take into account the calls that were answered via a special hotline the previous provider of the 1800RESPECT service established for regular callers. 

Medibank, which has long held the contract for the 1800RESPECT service but previously subcontracted the provision to a not-for-profit, never approved of the regular callers’ line. It was provided nonetheless as recognition that people with complex trauma face multiple barriers to accessing face-to-face support, and should therefore have access to specialised telephone counselling. 

McMahon attempts to portray Medibank as really caring about survivors of violence because it answers more calls. As if the previous service didn’t aspire to do this! The previous provider had been begging Liberal governments for years for more money so that counsellors could answer all calls. The request was modest: an extra $1 million per year – a total of $8 million. This was never agreed to, yet Medibank was subsequently awarded $68 million to run the same service!

McMahon also conveniently ignores the fact that no telephone counselling service in Australia answers 100 percent of calls. Publicly funded and run services simply do not have the necessary resources to answer all calls. And no government has so far done anything to remedy the situation by increasing funding. 

There were so many complaints about the conduct of Medibank and the government’s dealings with it in relation to 1800RESPECT that a Senate inquiry was commissioned in 2016. Recommendations from that inquiry are too numerous to list here. 

  One that is relevant though is the serious concerns registered by the Senate committee about the lack of specialised training and experience required of counsellors employed by Medibank. It concluded that they need far better skills and more experience and should be provided appropriate clinical supervision and be protected from vicarious trauma. All these standards were upheld by the not-for-profit provider, but not the supposedly more caring Medibank.

The committee further recommended that Medibank develop 1800RESPECT-specific privacy information that clearly explains how personal information will be recorded and maintained and which gives callers the option to not be recorded and remain anonymous. 

The previous provider did not record calls and raised serious ethical and legal concerns about Medibank doing this because it jeopardises client privacy and safety. Defence lawyers are known to subpoena counselling files of victims of abuse during court cases, so not providing the highest level of confidentiality is unethical.

When I worked for the 1800RESPECT service, it would never have been acceptable to compromise the safety or quality of care of clients in this way. It would also not have been acceptable to pay counsellors dealing with trauma pittance salaries. 

Tellingly, McMahon chose not to dispute my contention that the staff hired by Medibank to answer 1800RESPECT calls are underpaid. The advertised salaries for counsellors on Medibank’s 1800RESPECT are between half and two-thirds of what the previous service offered. 

McMahon accuses me of putting vulnerable women at greater risk by publicly criticising the privatisation of the 1800RESPECT service. Leaving aside what an insult this is to someone who has worked long hours with low pay in this sector for decades and has supported many hundreds of women during my career, this is disgraceful manipulation intended to silence criticism of a major corporation and its business strategy.

The public deserve to know that their taxes are being channelled to huge for-profit health companies and the wellbeing of family violence survivors is being compromised because of the government’s unwavering commitment to privatisation and neoliberalism. 

It is repugnant that a specialised women’s domestic violence and sexual assault service that had done an outstanding job was de-funded because the Liberals stitched up a deal to line the pockets of executives at Medibank. No amount of spin from corporate communications executives can hide that.