Queensland Health must “immediately” stop charging sexual assault victims who aren’t covered by Medicare for the costs associated with forensic examinations and tests, a taskforce has found.
The practice of charging victims has “distressed” tourists, international students, migrants and refugees, the final report of Queensland’s Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce said.
The taskforce heard some victims have been unable to pay for examinations, prompting invoices to be sent to a family address overseas. This has resulted in feelings of fear and shame, as well as “gross” breaches of privacy, the report said.
“Queensland victim-survivors should not be required to pay for their access to justice,” the taskforce found.
“Requiring victim-survivors who are ineligible for Medicare to pay for any component of a forensic medical examination is unacceptable and should immediately cease. The cost of providing forensic medical examinations for victim-survivors of sexual violence should be solely borne by the state.”
The report did not outline the costs for such examinations but Guardian Australia understands there are no fees within the Queensland Health Fees and Charges Register that relate specifically to medical examinations.
However, victims who are ineligible for Medicare may be charged hundreds of dollars in consultation fees and for pathology tests.
Di Macleod, director of the Gold Coast Centre Against Sexual Violence, said one woman was billed $800 for pathology testing this year after a sexual assault.
“That amount is fairly standard,” Macleod said.
“We were able to assist her to get the costs wiped … but those who don’t have Medicare are often the most vulnerable and don’t have extended support networks.”
She’s also aware of insurance companies refusing to cover medical costs associated with sexual assault.
“Put yourself in their place: you’re in another country, it’s not your first language and you’re trying to get medical support,” Macleod said.
“You’re experiencing trauma from a recent assault, and now you’re sitting there thinking, ‘How the hell am I going to pay this?’”
The taskforce’s final report, released last week, made 188 recommendations to improve treatment in the criminal justice system, including for Queensland Health to ensure rape kits are at least of consistent quality as those used in New South Wales and Victoria.
The Queensland kit includes six swabs – half of what is required to conduct a full forensic examination, the report said.
Angela Lynch, from the Queensland Sexual Assault Network, said “no one should be facing out-of-pocket expenses” for rape kits or injuries for a crime committed against them.
“Queensland survivors deserve the most up-to-date and quality-assured kits to ensure they have the best chance in the criminal justice process,” Lynch said.
A Queensland Health spokesperson said the department has been “carefully considering” the recommendations.
“Our laboratories receive a large volume of samples for processing and always strive to provide results to the Queensland police service as promptly as possible,” they said.
“We have implemented reforms … [including] investing $1.39m to increase training in forensic procedures in all public hospitals.”
The Cairns Sexual Assault Service told the taskforce that a 16-year-old rape victim was told by hospital staff to return 36 hours later – and not to bathe or shower in the interim – as they were “too busy to see her”.
The report referred to another victim-survivor who said a “category of errors” saw policing losing evidence, including clothing worn in the attack against her by three alleged rapists. Only one person was charged based on DNA evidence and the officer who lost the evidence was fined, according to the report.
Julie Sarkozi, a solicitor at the Women’s Legal Service Queensland, said the state’s high DNA requirements have resulted in reports being withdrawn.
“WLSQ has spoken to a number of survivors who’ve been advised police are unable to investigate complaints because of insufficient evidence as the sample is not considered accurate in Queensland,” Sarkozi said.
“This is a terrible injustice … Queensland survivors deserve better.”
A commission of inquiry into DNA testing at the state’s Forensic and Scientific Services laboratory is under way.
Queensland police have been contacted for comment.