How Aspen Medical got ‘paid access’ to politicians before it made more than $1 billion in the pandemic

The former chairman and co-founder of Aspen Medical has revealed how the company obtained access to senior ranks of the Coalition government by participating in political fundraising and appointing a former Liberal cabinet minister to its board.

The company has earned $1.6 billion over the past two years, the bulk of which was courtesy of federal PPE contracts issued without a public tender. Its pre-tax profits during this period have totalled more than $420 million.

Andrew Walker – who quit Aspen in 2019 and is now involved in litigation with the company’s owner – has told Four Corners that former Liberal minister Michael Wooldridge introduced him to Greg Hunt, and arranged “paid access” to a budget dinner with the Health Minister.

“He did give access,” Mr Walker said.

“It’s paid access. You have a dinner with the minister, or lunch with the minister. I mean, it costs you money, they don’t do it because they like to look at your face.”

Mr Walker said he believed that Mr Hunt and Dr Wooldridge are close friends.

“I know Michael Wooldridge has introduced me to Greg Hunt, and he and Michael have arranged for me to go to Greg Hunt’s office, which is very nice on a budget dinner,” Mr Walker said.

Michael Wooldridge
Former Liberal health minister Michael Wooldridge is a former board member and lobbyist for Aspen Medical.(AAP: Julian Smith)

A Four Corners investigation has revealed Mr Hunt signed a glowing commendation for the company while it was in the midst of negotiations with his department over multimillion-dollar PPE deals.

Dr Wooldridge served on Aspen Medical’s board on and off until 2019. He remains a registered lobbyist for the company and is currently a director of Aspen’s $1.3 billion Indonesian joint venture. He did not respond to questions from Four Corners.

A spokesman for Mr Hunt told Four Corners, “we are not aware of, nor have any record of, any lobbying by Dr Wooldridge on behalf of Aspen Medical in relation to any procurement”.

He also said the commendation letter was “written to support Aspen Medical in tendering for work in the United States and is appropriate for Australian firms assisting in international activity”.

His statement said the PPE procurement was run by a taskforce of government officials at arm’s length and that he had no role in assessing, recommending or negotiating for any of the National Medical Stockpile procurement deals.

The spokesman said Mr Hunt recalls having met both Dr Wooldridge and Aspen at a budget function “during the course of an evening where he would have met some hundreds of people”.

“We understand that Aspen has attended events with both major parties including with Shadow Minister Mark Butler,” Mr Hunt’s spokesman said.

“On budget nights the Minister will often visit over 10 functions and meet numerous people.”

Aspen’s ‘rocky marriage’ with Defence

For the better part of two decades, Aspen Medical has provided outsourced health care across Australia and the world.

It has deployed alongside the Australian Federal Police to the Solomon Islands, flown emergency medical teams to the Nauru immigration detention centre, and provided support to the Australian Defence Force overseas and at home.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, however, the company’s biggest earner had been a $170 million-a-year sub-contract with Medibank Health Services to provide an agreed number of medical staff for health clinics on more than 50 military bases around Australia.

But its relations with Medibank and the Department of Defence turned acrimonious. Defence complained repeatedly about failures of Aspen to meet its contractual promises.

“It was a very rocky marriage from day one and it never improved,” said Patrick Castles, a former Aspen Medical executive in charge of the contract, who now works for Andrew Walker’s rival firm.

Patrick Castles stands in a yard. Behind him is a large hedge and the trunk of a tree. He has his hands in his pockets.
Aspen Medical executive Patrick Castles says the company’s standing with Defence was “rocky”.(Four Corners)

“[Defence] were claiming all sorts of breaches of the contract requirements, whether they be in credentialing, whether they be in key performance indicators or failure to do certain things or undertake certain things and complete them satisfactorily.”

Defence was alarmed at how short-staffed some of its Aspen clinics were, and at the calibre of some of the people the company had recruited. It reported errors that ranged from dental work commencing on the wrong patient, to improperly administered medications and vaccines.

Aspen was repeatedly forced to pay compensation under the contract worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Medibank told Aspen that a senior Defence official had warned them that if she was questioned about on-base health services during a parliamentary hearing, she was planning to “dump shit all over Aspen”.

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Watch Four Corners’ full investigation into Aspen Medical.

Things never improved. In December 2014, for example, an internal Aspen Medical document reported the company had agreed to a $900,000 rebate “to close out past issues”.

One internal paper showed Aspen Medical attempted to go over the heads of both Medibank and the Defence Department, organising for “papers detailing our position [to be] submitted to MINDEF [then-defence minister, Marise Payne]”.

Aspen Medical office building
The company had a $170 million-a-year sub-contract to staff health clinics on more than 50 Australian military bases.(ABC Four Corners)

In April 2016, Aspen was advised by Medibank that by the end of that year, its contract would not be extended.

“The customer was not happy with the way we were going about our business,” Andrew Walker said.

In a statement, Aspen Medical said it “could not accept the new contractual terms proposed by Medibank”.

The company told Four Corners its contract involved 1,100 health professionals.

“It is inevitable that given these statistics, over the course of the contract term, there would be instances where some personnel and services would become temporarily unavailable e.g. due to illness, carer’s leave etc.,” it said.

“The contract recognised this potential and provided for Aspen Medical to provide service rebates for such unavailability.”

In one incident on a NSW military base, Defence discovered Aspen was not properly checking its “emergency trolley”, the medical resuscitation kit used in serious first-aid emergencies.

Defence complained it had not been checked for 22 days, with Aspen’s nursing staff failing to comply with daily and monthly checking protocols to ensure the equipment was replenished and ready to use.

A prison death

This very same failure occurred three years later at a privatised prison called Melaleuca in Perth where Aspen Medical had been hired to provide healthcare services – the incident is now the subject of an investigation by the state’s coroner.

In February 2017, an Aspen Medical nurse arrived at a cell with a resuscitation kit that had not been properly checked and replenished, to treat a woman who was in cardiac arrest. When attempts were made to use the oxygen, it was discovered the tank was empty, and an eight-minute delay ensued while the nurse ran back to get another.

Profile image of Cally Graham
Cally Graham went into cardiac arrest inside her cell at Melaleuca prison.(Supplied)

The 31-year-old woman, Cally Graham, later died, though a coronial inquest into her death has heard the delay in oxygen may not have been the cause of her death.

One cardiologist, Dr Johan Janssen, told the Coroner’s Court “your resuscitation trolley should be checked every day”.

“It is not excusable to have an empty oxygen cell in a trolley,” he said.

The nurse involved, who no longer works for Aspen Medical, said there was meant to be a protocol followed by Aspen’s staff for the equipment to be checked regularly, “but obviously because of staff shortage … we don’t know whether the process was followed”.

She told the inquest the company’s health care in the prison was disorganised.

“There was no system, nothing in place, no leadership,” she said.

Meanwhile, Aspen Medical’s so-called “comprehensive report” filed after the incident, made no mention of the empty oxygen tank.

In 2018, the state’s custodial services inspector issued a public report that described the prisoners’ experience of Aspen’s health services as “dire”.

Four Corners has revealed the company knew from the outset that it was not meeting the requirements of its contract.

A draft discussion paper prepared only weeks after the prison opened, and days after Cally Graham died, explicitly acknowledged “inappropriate staffing levels” were not meeting the requirements of the Corrective Services Department, the prime contractor Sodexo or Aspen Medical.

The paper reveals Aspen Medical had chosen to accept a contract that provided only $1.7 million a year to cover costs. Aspen had previously quoted about $3.2 million a year for the job.

“That led to a reduced staffing model being developed to meet the allocated budget but not the requirements of the scope of work,” the document said.

At the time, Aspen was providing a GP for only two four-hour sessions per week. The document reveals this presented a “highly significant clinical risk”, including “potential patient mismanagement/near miss catastrophe or death in custody due to lack of doctor cover from 9-5”.

According to an internal document, the company decided to make cuts at the prison in 2018: “Immediate actions implemented: freeze on overtime, roster realigned reducing nursing staff requirement, medical officer hours reduced, psych services reduced.”

Sally Oliver sits, looking directly at the camera with a neutral expression.
Solicitor Sally Oliver was alarmed by the level of care at Melaleuca.(Four Corners)

The reduction in mental health resources was apparent to Sally Oliver, a solicitor formerly with the Mental Health Law Centre. In October 2019, she wrote to the WA government to warn there was no treating psychiatrist on-site, and that the department risked breaching its duty of care to the inmates.

Ms Oliver told Four Corners when she learned of the lack of a treating psychiatrist: “I felt an immediate panic, because that left those women in danger.”

In a statement, Aspen Medical said it was unable to comment on matters concerning the death of Cally Graham because of the ongoing inquest, and it did not answer several other questions that concerned its wider performance at the prison.

The company said its thoughts are with the deceased’s family and friends.

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