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The Australian

Jan 17, 2012

Why would you care about such a critical detail as whether the “designer vaginas on Medicare” claim was credible or not?

The Australian runs with a difficult

Pure Poison IconThe Australian runs with a difficult to believe (if you’ve ever dealt with the organisation) claim about extraordinary alleged Medicare payouts:

Tony Webber claims… that the safety net has been used to “subsidise cosmetic procedures such as surgery for ‘designer vaginas’ at $5000-$6000 each”.

Well that’s a freebie for every shock jock wanting to pretend that Medicare is overfunded and frivolous, instead of cash-strapped and unable to fund many necessary procedures.

Except… really? “Designer vaginas”? At $5-6000 each? Under which Medicare category does that fit? When did that happen? Which doctors made that claim? Was it paid out, or clawed back? Are we talking about a strange operation that is covered by Medicare but shouldn’t be (unlikely) or a case of fraud, that’s been caught?

I mean – that’s not a normal Medicare charge, is it? And if not, what happened? How did they get away with it? WHAT IS THE FREAKING STORY? Did it even happen?

The AMA was doubtful:

AMA president Steve Hambleton said Dr Webber’s style and language were overblown, and he had not previously heard any suggestion that the safety net — set up as catastrophe insurance — had been used to cover cosmetic treatments, let alone highly controversial genital procedures for non-medical reasons.

And yet the piece as published in The Australian includes none of writer Adam Cresswell’s no doubt vigorous journalism on the subject. You know, the bit where he followed up with Dr Webber by asking him point blank to back up his claim, and then noted down the details for verification, and then checked them himself, and if he found that it had happened where he then discovered how and why… so that the people reading his article who weren’t the sort of partisan readers who’d happily pretend to believe anything as long as it bashed a public service whose community support they resent, would have some basis for taking it seriously.

That critical part of Cresswell’s article is completely missing, and of course we blame anonymous subs at The Australian, who must have, for some flimsy reason, excised it.

Damn subs, leaving us with no way to tell whether the crazy claim is true, and something we should demand answers from our politicians about – or a cynical, nasty fiction. And making Adam look like he hasn’t done his job, even though we here at Pure Poison are absolutely sure that he did.

They should be ashamed of themselves.

UPDATE: The original sentence “so that the people reading his article who weren’t partisan hacks who’d happily pretend to believe anything as long as it bashed a public service whose community support they resent, would have some basis for taking it seriously” has been amended in a spirit of good faith to make it doubly clear – in case anyone misunderstood it as implying that we were calling the writer of the article a “partisan hack” – that we were referring to the sort of audience that would accept the sorts of claims referred to in the article without question.

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14 comments

14 thoughts on “Why would you care about such a critical detail as whether the “designer vaginas on Medicare” claim was credible or not?

  1. Jack Sparraaggghhh

    Now I’ve had a moment and gone to the source, I think I might have cracked part of the problem with the reporting on this.

    Here’s Dr Webber quoted in The Australian:

    Denouncing the system he helped oversee, Tony Webber claims Medicare is “riddled with misdirected incentives” for doctors, that payments worth up to $140 to GPs for writing care plans have created “opportunities for a bonanza” and that the safety net has been used to “subsidise cosmetic procedures such as surgery for ‘designer vaginas’ at $5000-$6000 each”.

    Now Webber quoted in The Age:

    He says he is aware of instances where the Medicare Safety Net had been used “to subsidise cosmetic procedures, including surgery for ‘designer vaginas’ at $5000-$6000 each”.

    Now here’s Webber writing in the primary source, his article in the MJA:

    During my time as Director of Professional Services Review, the Safety Net was used in effect to subsidise cosmetic procedures such as surgery for “designer vaginas” at $5000–$6000 each.

    You’ll notice both the oz and fairfax omitted to quote two rather important words; i.e., those cosmetic procedures were “in effect” subsidised under the Medicare Safety Net.

    The import, I believe, of what Webber actually wrote is that the “open-ended nature of the Safety Net” permitted opaque arrangements under which such cosmetic procedures could be effectively subsidised without administrative detection.

    But the sloppy quoting, by both the oz and fairfax, promotes the impression that such cosmetic procedures have been somehow directly subsidised.

    Note, however, that the oz at least made reference to Webber’s “open-ended” criticism of the Safety Net a few paragraphs down from the ‘designer vaginas’ quote; whereas fairfax omitted that “open-ended” bit entirely.

    Webber’s article is worth the read. Note also, he doesn’t “denounce the system he helped oversee,” as hysterically reported by Cresswell; he actually quite seems to like it (imho) but wants it fixed.

  2. SHV

    That’s probably a bit confused. The simple fact is that neither Health minister (Lib 2005 or ALP 2009) complied with the Act because they failed to consult with the AMA about appointments to the PSR. The result was that several decisions of the PSR were overturned and costs ordered against the government.

    http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/E80E195CFBCE77CBCA2578790017413B/$File/FOI%20055-1112%20document%202.pdf

    But apparently Tony Abbott, 2005, DID consult with the AMA about appointing Dr Webber. Isn’t it weird that you would consult with the AMA about one appointment but then forget to consult over all the others?

  3. SHV

    Isn’t it funny, I had to go and check the “Streisand Effect” from the other link because I hadn’t heard of it.

    Now Dr Webber may be creating his own example of that phenomenon.

    http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/foi-disc-log

    Last year the Health Dept apparently started listing FOI results on its website. The above link reminded me of the attack recently on the dental scheme. Someone really hates publicly funded health care.

    Anyway, the docs supposedly related to the appointment of Dr Webber by Tony Abbott in the above link take you to the dental scheme instead of anything about Dr Webber. Now if we had some journalists who actually did journalism, there might be a story in all of that.

  4. Jack Sparraaggghhh

    Sear made no attempt to contact Adam prior to publication to check any of his assertions.

    So, Clive, now if someone who wants to make fair comment on a published piece must contact the author to verify… what, that he’s done his work with due rigour? Or that my comment is ‘fair’?

    What an absurd and unworkable proposal! Kiss goodbye to vigorous debate the Oz professes to uphold, and dishes out in spades.

  5. Jeremy Sear

    I did like the defence of “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER PAPERS WHO WERE EVEN WORSE?!1!!?!”

    I just happened to read yours first. Take it as a compliment.

  6. liliwyt

    More to the point – why the necessity to use the more salacious term “designer vaginas” (apart from the nice cadence)?

    (that was a rhetorical question, I think I know the answer)

  7. Jeremy Sear

    Quick response to Clive’s extraordinary comment:

    1. I did not “imply” Dr Webber was “lying”, I asked for supporting information to back up the claim Clive’s paper published.
    2. I did not make any “outrageous slur” on the “professionalism” of Cresswell – I made it clear, in fact, that I chose to believe that he had done all the appropriate research.
    3. All my comments were supported by the content of the article.

    My point was about the publication of an extraordinary claim without any supporting details that would make it credible (not even a response from the relevant Minister), and the fact that apparently someone (I don’t know who) at The Australian didn’t think that mattered.

    I may well follow up with Adam at some point in the future, but this post wasn’t specifically about what research he’d done – it was about what was ultimately published.

  8. Matthew of Canberra

    According to the medicare website

    http://www.medicareaustralia.gov.au/public/claims/what-cover.jsp

    Medicare does not cover:

    # medical services which are not clinically necessary
    # surgery solely for cosmetic reasons

    So this is a pretty big claim. If a doctor is allowing a patient to commit fraud, then somebody ought to be investigating that.

    You’re quite right – the actual story is entirely missing from the article.

  9. Holden Back

    Phyllis – commiserations. Just be glad you didn’t end up with a Gehry.

  10. Chris Tallis

    I want it to be true because I’m very interested in purchasing two of them. One to play with and the other to keep for special occasions.

  11. Durham Red

    He also seems to have overlooked getting a quote from the Health Minister that introduced “one of the most poorly thought-through pieces of health legislation”, Tony Abbott.

  12. phyllis stein

    I’m still considering who to sue. I commissioned a Mies van der Rhoe, and I got a Gaudi. Can barely get my pants on.

  13. Clive Mathieson

    This outrageous slur on Adam Cresswell’s professionalism can not go unchallenged.

    The Australian, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and various other newspapers, all reported Dr Webber’s claim that the Safety Net had been used to “subsidise cosmetic procedures such as surgery for ‘designer vaginas at $5000-$6000 each” in news stories based on the MJA article published on Monday January 16.

    While other newspapers allowed the claim to stand unchallenged, The Australian’s story did include a comment from the president of the Australian Medical Association, Steve Hambleton, expressing surprise at this aspect of the claims and appearing to cast some doubt on it.

    In his blog post, which discussed The Australian’s story alone and made no mention of other similar reports, Jeremy Sear implicitly questions Dr Webber’s credibility, and criticises The Australian for giving him credence, even though The Australian’s report sought more contrasting views than other newspapers – and even though Crikey itself thought Dr Webber’s attack credible enough to lead its own website, on Tuesday January 17.

    Until August, Dr Webber had spent six years as director of the Professional Services Review, a part of Medicare that is charged with scrutinising the behaviour of doctors and other health workers referred to it by Medicare. His position meant he was in precisely the sort of position to know details of specific instances of alleged inappropriate practice.

    As the context of Adam’s article made clear, Dr Webber’s claim that the Safety Net had effectively been used to subsidise cosmetic surgery for “designer vaginas” was based on the insights and knowledge he gained during his six years in the post.

    Claiming for cosmetic surgery through Medicare, far from being scarcely believable, has happened before and is a problem acknowledged by Medicare Australia in publicly available documents.

    Adam did question Dr Webber about his “designer vagina” claim. Adam and The Australian were and remain satisfied Dr Webber made the allegation in good faith and on the basis of solid evidence.

    The question to be asked is not why The Australian omitted to publish further details justifying Dr Webber’s claim about “designer vaginas” – it did not need to – but on what grounds Sear implies Dr Webber is lying. This is a serious charge to make of a recent senior commonwealth public servant.

    Sear cites no evidence whatsoever to justify his many comments about The Australian and Adam. And Sear made no attempt to contact Adam prior to publication to check any of his assertions.

    It is reprehensible for Sear to write, and for Crikey to publish such an article, with so little effort to verify its malicious claims.

    Clive Mathieson
    Editor
    The Australian