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PREMIER Ted Baillieu is under pressure to expand a probe into patient deaths in mental health wards and to appoint a new inquiry head amid concerns about the independence of the Chief Psychiatrist.
Mr Baillieu announced on Monday that Chief Psychiatrist Ruth Vine would lead an inquiry into dozens of psychiatric patient death cases closed by the State Coroner between 2008 and 2010. The inquiry was sparked by reports in The Age exposing concerns about standards of care and cover-up claims involving deaths in state-run psychiatric wards.
The state opposition, the Law Institute of Victoria and the Mental Health Legal Centre yesterday called for the Coalition to replace Dr Vine as head of the inquiry and appoint an independent person or panel.
Opposition mental health spokesman Gavin Jennings said the public would have more confidence if the probe were led by someone independent of the state's mental health system.
Mr Jennings suggested the government consider engaging a senior interstate psychiatrist, refer the matter to the Ombudsman or set up a judicial inquiry.
''We believe that the confidence within the community would be enhanced if the review was undertaken by a totally independent source,'' he said.
Law Institute of Victoria president Caroline Counsel told The Age she welcomed the inquiry but said it should include a greater number of patient deaths over a wider period of time. She suggested the government consider appointing a three-member panel to head the inquiry.
She revealed that Dr Vine's office had failed to respond to two letters from the Law Institute last year that sought further details of psychiatric ward deaths in 2007 to 2009 , as well as other details on standards of care for the mentally ill.
''You've got the leading legal body in the state requesting a response and some sort of accountability and we get zip,'' Ms Counsel said. ''We need a substantive review of all deaths beyond the narrow period identified to find out if there is some sort of systemic problem …''
The Mental Health Legal Centre also welcomed the inquiry but wants it widened, undertaken by someone not connected to the Health Department and tabled in Parliament.
''We don't want a departmental whitewash,'' policy officer Catherine Leslie said.
Dr Vine said yesterday that she had used her powers under the Mental Health Act to investigate two of the 36 deaths probed by the State Coroner between 2008 and 2010. Those were the stabbing deaths of two patients by a fellow patient at Thomas Embling hospital for the criminally insane.
Dr Vine said she had not examined the three patient deaths highlighted last Saturday by The Age because they had been reviewed by the relevant health network and were also subject to coronial inquests.
She was adamant her office was ''sufficiently independent to carry out this important review''.
Mental Health Minister Mary Wooldridge said Dr Vine was the right person to lead the inquiry.
''What we are asking the Chief Psychiatrist to undertake is an additional level of investigation to assess if recommendations made at the service level, or by the coroner, were, or are being, implemented.'' In opposition in 2009, Ms Wooldridge criticised the then Brumby government's decision to have Dr Vine probe the Thomas Embling stabbings, saying the Chief Psychiatrist lacked independence.
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/baillieu-urged-to-expand-probe-of-patient-deaths-20110908-1jzvr.html#ixzz1XPbQQK2h
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