Canberra medical services success story Aspen Medical has responded to an ABC Four Corners report that details how the company made millions during the pandemic from government contracts for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), despite no experience of large-scale procurement in that area.
Four Corners also says that Health Minister Greg Hunt wrote and signed a glowing reference for Aspen Medical while it was involved in negotiations with the department on the PPE deals, eventually clinched without a public tender.
It details Aspen Medical’s political connections, pointing to former Liberal health minister Dr Michael Woolridge as a lobbyist for the company.
Four Corners says the pandemic contracts turned the company’s fortunes around after multi-million dollar losses in 2018 and 2019, with the company’s pre-tax profits recovering to more than $420 million.
The program also says Aspen Medical has been named in a money-laundering investigation in Sri Lanka through its involvement in a hospital project dating back to 2012.
According to Four Corners, the undated letter from Mr Hunt, under the Commonwealth Government crest, addressed to ‘whom it may concern’ and signed in late February, described Aspen Medical as “a world-recognised, nationally awarded company” and “a trusted supplier of … health services to the Australian Government”.
Former Health Department Secretary Stephen Duckett told Four Corners he had never seen a letter like it.
“Here we have a minister in charge — or who’s a minister assisting in the area of the public service — writing a letter, which is highly dubious, undated, fulsome, to ‘whom it may concern’,” Mr Duckett said.
“We’ve got no idea, neither does he, in what context Aspen Medical would use this letter.”
He said it was remarkable that Mr Hunt signed the letter while the government was still in talks with Aspen Medical.
“So it is extraordinarily unusual and, in fact, dangerous for a minister — or in fact for a public servant — to actually have any contact, any engagement, and certainly to write a letter of this kind,” Mr Duckett said.
Aspen Medical said in a statement to Region Media that it had requested the letter to support Australian exports in health services to other international governments.
A letter of support was also obtained from the Australian Defence Export Office (DEO), but these letters were not used for any Australian Department of Health contracts.
Mr Hunt denied any involvement in the PPE contract recommendations or negotiations and said his engagement with Aspen Medical was minimal.
He defended the value for money achieved in the government’s PPE procurement, citing positive findings by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) which said the equipment was priced within an appropriate range.
Aspen Medical was one of many suppliers engaged without tender and at speed to provide PPE and other services in a fiercely competitive market during the COVID-19 health crisis.
It also won contracts for a range of medical services, from administering vaccines to staffing aged care homes, including building the COVID-19 Surge Centre at Garran for the ACT Government.
Aspen Medical said in its statement that the pandemic created an unprecedented set of circumstances in the health sector and across global and domestic supply chains.
“Aspen Medical secured unprecedented volumes of essential PPE for frontline line workers across the Australian health and hospital sectors, despite significant and mounting competition globally for these products as the pandemic evolved,” the company said.
“We also provided targeted emergency support to aged care workforces where both NFP and private aged care operators lacked in-house infection prevention and control (IPC) capabilities or were unable to maintain safe staffing levels.”
Four Corners said Aspen Medical has links with senior ranks of the government and the parliamentary Liberal Party, including from introductions made by Dr Wooldridge, a former board member and lobbyist for the company who is currently a director of its $1.3 billion joint venture in Indonesia.
Mr Hunt’s spokesman 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.”
Aspen Medical said it had been selected by State and Federal Australian governments, as well as many international governments and companies, to provide critical emergency and remote location medical and health services.
“Aspen Medical is the only company in the world to be certified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an Emergency Medical Team for infectious disease outbreaks and trauma surgical operations,” it said.
“Our Australian team members are proud of the work we did to assist the country at a time of incredible and mounting challenges during the pandemic.”
At the peak of the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014/15, Aspen Medical was contracted to support the UK, United States, Australian and New Zealand governments’ efforts by managing multiple Ebola treatment centres across Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Four Corners says the money laundering connection stemmed from an Aspen Medical payment during the Sri Lankan hospital project to a British-Virgin Islands-domiciled company called Sabre Vision Holdings, which Colombo police suspect is a “derivative or a result of an illegal activity”.
It was part of 4.3 million euros and $US537,000 ($759,000) remitted, in total, to the offshore company by Aspen Medical, and other hospital project participants EN-Projects and German company Juga Bau GmbH.
In 2013, Sabre Vision Holdings received hundreds of thousands of US dollars as part of a global bribery scheme set up by EADS, the parent company of aircraft manufacturer Airbus.
Aspen Medical told Four Corners it had not received “any requests from any government agency or court of law anywhere in the world” regarding the hospital project but would support any such inquiries.
It said the Airbus scandal only became public in 2019, years after its payments to Sabre Vision Holdings.
“We have a strong set of values that would preclude us working with organisations involved in corrupt practices,” the company said.
Read Aspen Medical’s full response here.
Aspen Medical CEO Glenn Keys is on the advisory board for Region Media.