The new Byron Hospital has been plagued by controversy since its inception – from its location, to the inclusion of the ambulance station and the omission of a surgical unit – the list goes on.
In recent weeks The Echo has been contacted by multiple people regarding widely known allegations of fraudulent behaviour and breaches of Health policies and procedures at the hospital. They say the allegations have been investigated, but the staff have not been told which, if any, allegations were substantiated or what disciplinary action if any has been taken. Persons alleged to have behaved improperly do not appear to have received more than a slap on the wrist, and the systems that allowed the potential for fraud to occur have not been tightened.
It is understood that an internal investigation found that certain members of staff, could have behaved either fraudulently and/or in contravention of hospital policy and procedures. This followed reports of discrepancies between hours worked, payroll hours logged and hours people were paid for.
Some staff members were put on special leave while an internal investigation took place into their work practices. They were paid for 21 weeks work from February to July while the investigation was in progress.
Claims investigated included that two senior staff had not properly checked the accuracy of roster records; that some records showed certain staff were at work when they weren’t; and that staff cut short workdays, and records were not adjusted accordingly. Senior nursing staff were investigated after a claim that other staff members were taken to breakfast off the premises during work hours while records showed that all involved were working on site at the hospital. An allegation that a senior staff member gave a confidential computer password to a member of the security staff and allowed him access to the roster system to enter false records was also investigated.
Low morale continues
While all of this was going on, morale at the hospital was declining daily. ‘Everybody knew what was going on,’ a staff member told The Echo. ‘We all knew what was happening, we were all talking about it in the hallways, but there was nothing anyone could do about it. They had their own little club.’
Since the conclusion of the investigation in July, two staff members have been exonerated; one senior nurse has retired; a security person has moved on to other employment in a position of trust in the community, and one senior nurse has gained employment at another facility.
Upon investigation, The Echo could find no reprimands recorded in the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) records.
One would think that was the end of it, yet the situation has led several members of hospital staff to approach The Echo because they feel that the consequences of the investigation, especially if any fraud or breaches of health policies and procedures were substantiated, were not adequate. They believe that the culture of inappropriate activities is continuing and the behaviour and issues from the past and present are being allowed to be covered up. In fact, rather than opening things up to wider scrutiny, the reporting system was recently clamped down, closing the windows that enabled the practices to be discovered in the first place.
While there has been no response from the health minister or the shadow health minister, the Chief Executive of Northern NSW Local Health District Wayne Jones has responded twice to The Echo – both times commenting that it was an internal matter.
‘Northern NSW Local Health District follows NSW Health policy requirements for managing allegations of misconduct by staff,’ he said.
‘Any substantiated findings related to employees are acted on accordingly. All investigations of misconduct are confidential and NNSWLHD does not disclose information about disciplinary actions taken against staff to members of the public or to existing staff.’
Mr Jones continued, saying he will not comment on any actions taken by any external authorities. ‘NNSWLHD recovers any staff overpayments or funds found to have been received in error. NNSWLHD regularly reviews internal audit processes to minimise organisational risks and ensure adherence to policy.’
However, questions are being asked by remaining hospital staff about what disciplinary action, if any, was taken – including whether any criminal charges were laid?
Some staff believe there is now an ‘us and them’ narrative being perpetuated at the hospital and they are concerned that if staff have ‘gotten away with it’, there is nothing stopping the same thing happening again in the future.
If no impropriety occurred, why not advise staff accordingly?
A recent memo to staff suggests the avenue for exposing future fraudulent behaviour has now been blocked; making it much easier for mistakes to happen or theft or discrepancies to be hidden.
One of the people who contacted The Echo said the reason they were wanting this to be out in the open is because they want to see the culture at the hospital change.
‘Part of me wants to see consequences,’ they said. ‘But more importantly, I don’t want to see the same things repeated.’
Another staff member said the atmosphere of bullying and intimidation means they no longer want to go to work.
‘I hate going to work. The culture continues and you’ve got to wonder whether the culture continues because someone has gotten away with something. One of the security guards had 21 weeks off [during the investigation] and they weren’t backfilled – that means they weren’t replaced. Because of this, we had less staff at the hospital and that’s just not safe.’
Some staff members at the hospital also believe that this should not be an internal matter and that the public have a right to know about it. In particular they point out that thousands of dollars of public funds would have been better used at the hospital instead of being potentialy misused.
‘The investigation only looked at the allegations of fraud from a slice of time,’ said one person. ‘Not the months, if not years, beforehand. There were times when security was rostered on, but they weren’t there. That’s not safe.’
Another person questioned how staff, if they were indeed found to have acted fraudulently or in breach of health policies and procedures, were able to get future employment.
‘Who gave them references? There are no reprimands registered on their AHPRA records – they are open to the public. If they are guilty, then who gave them a reference for their next job? Their AHPRA records are as clean as a whistle. Why? The tax-paying public deserve answers.
‘This is our local hospital, this is where we, our parents, our children, all go for healthcare and treatment. We are constantly being told about budget cuts around staffing or equipment and yet management are seriously going to allow a misuse of taxpayers’ money?
‘We demand answers from our health service – a government organisation should not be allowed to cover up any misconduct from its senior management team!’