In Oceania, Aspen Medical expose raises serious concerns

Australian investigative affairs program Four Corners has revealed that a private medical company and donor to the Morrison government, Aspen Medical, was able to secure lucrative contracts worth more than AUD 1 billion after engaging a former health minister as a lobbyist.

The ABC report reveals a business model dependent on taxpayer funded contracts to privatise healthcare, prison healthcare, aged care and pandemic emergency response, despite evidence of underperformance and in some cases serious allegations of negligence and corruption.

The company has also received Australian taxpayer support to provide medical services in the region, money that has enabled profits at the expense of public health. In Sri Lanka, the company has been linked to allegations of corruption and money laundering connected to the rebuilding of Hambantota District Hospital.

In Fiji, Aspen Medical secured a contract with the Fijian government in 2019 to privatise the Lautoka Hospital and operate the newly built Ba Hospital. This agreement granted Aspen Medical a 23-year concession term to run and operate the hospitals. The proposal has been controversial in Fiji since it was first announced, with public criticism and sustained delays even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Lautoka Hospital is a public hospital with 350 beds and a feeder hospital serving the greater district. Health workers and communities raised concerns around the impact Aspen Medical’s takeover would have on access to critical health care and questioned whether privatisation was appropriate in Fiji.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) revealed that AUD$1,386,500 of Official Development Assistance to Fiji was spent on the project between 2016 and 2021.

In 2021, Senator Tony Sheldon used Senate Estimates to questions the Australian Government’s role in the controversial privatisation process. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) revealed that AUD$1,386,500 of Official Development Assistance to Fiji was spent on the project between 2016 and 2021. DFAT claimed that the aid money was directed to the International Finance Corporation to support the preparation and tender of the Public Private Partnership, and Australia was not involved in selection process which saw the contract awarded to Aspen Medical. In April 2022, over 3 years since the initial announcement, Aspen Medical commenced management of the two hospitals.

The Morrison Government’s use of an international aid program to privatise public healthcare in Fiji is deeply concerning. The allegations made by Four Corners against Aspen Medical raise serious concerns around the appropriateness of the projects in Fiji and the role of the Morrison government in the process. Accessible and quality public health systems must be run and operated by the state and staffed by trained public employees. If Australia wants to be considered a serious development partner in Pacific Island countries it must commit to increasing direct and reliable grants for investment in quality public health systems.

PSI calls on the next Australian government to conduct an independent inquiry into the use of Australian taxpayer funds to privatise hospitals in our region and return the hospitals in Fiji to public hands.