New SA Health boss under fire from MPs

SA Health’s new chief executive has apologised to MPs after she was accused of attempting to “pull witnesses” during her first round of questioning before a parliamentary committee.

SA Health Chief Dr Robyn Lawrence made her first appearance before parliament’s Budget and Finance Committee this morning, but it was the absence of two of her understudies which sparked controversy.

InDaily understands that up until this morning, MPs who sit on the committee expected Lawrence’s deputies Don Frater and Lynne Cowan to also answer questions, but the pair did not show up to the hearing.

Lawrence was instead joined by SA Health’s corporate systems and support services deputy chief executive Julienne Tepohe.

That prompted anger from opposition and crossbench committee members, who had planned to ask Cowan – who served as acting SA Health appointment chief executive up until Lawrence’s two weeks’ ago – a series of questions about ambulance ramping and the new Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

“Are we going to expect as a committee that you and the department will pull witnesses from appearing before a committee when you see fit?” SA Best MLC Frank Pangallo asked Lawrence.

“I appreciate the fact that you’ve only been here for two weeks, which is probably why we would have appreciated some of the other members of SA Health being here.

“There would be questions that we would have for them that you wouldn’t be able to answer and you would have to take on notice.”

Lawrence said she decided not to send Cowan and Frater to the hearing after close of business on Friday.

She said she told Health Minister Chris Picton “late on Friday afternoon” that she was considering not sending Cowan and Frater, but he left it up to her to make the decision.

“My apologies,” she said.

“I think from here going forward I’ll be much more aware of this process and also make sure that those who I nominate to attend will attend with me.”

Pangallo asked Lawrence whether she considered the committee about her decision to not send Cowan and Frater.

“My apologies,” she repeated.

“It was very late on Friday afternoon when I turned my mind to what I’d be doing this morning and well after the committee would have been closed – it was well after 5pm.

“I accept that this is not acceptable to the committee.”

In response to a question by the committee’s chair and Liberal MLC Heidi Girolamo earlier in the hearing, Lawrence said she chose not to send Cowan and Frater because she “wanted to provide enough opportunity for me to answer questions in a relatively short meeting”.

“The team has a range of other things to progress,” she said.

Lawrence previously worked as WA Health’s assistant director general of clinical excellence before taking over from Cowan on September 12.

It comes after the Malinauskas Government in April terminated former SA Health boss Chris McGowan in a widespread shakeup of the public service.

Since her appointment, Lawrence has spoken out about the ongoing challenges SA Health faces tackling ambulance ramping and emergency department blockages.

During this morning’s hearing, she said one of her first objectives would be to reduce ambulance ramping back to 2018 levels, but she was unable to say what those levels were.

“I’ve been given a clear mandate to tackle ambulance ramping and improve access to care in South Australian hospitals for all South Australians,” she said.

“While I’m aware of the challenges that are ahead of us, I am also aware that South Australia has a world renowned health system that is supported by exceptional doctors, nurses, paramedics, allied health and other support staff.”

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