23 April 2022

Withdrawal of festival pill testing insurer could have 'flow on impacts' to Canberra's fixed site

| Claire Fenwicke
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Dr David Caldicott inside the pill testing site at Groovin the Moo 2019

Dr David Caldicott inside the pill testing site at Groovin the Moo festival in 2019. Photo: supplied, Pill Testing Australia.

Drug harm reduction specialists fear an insurer’s decision to pull coverage for pill testing at Groovin the Moo on Sunday (24 April) will impact Canberra’s fixed trial site.

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith was questioned about the decision and said she would be speaking with Pill Testing Australia – which is helping with the implementation of the site – about the matter.

“The decision by this insurer may have flow-on impacts,” she said.

“We will revisit that conversation, but I am hoping it won’t have any significant impacts.”

READ MORE Harm Reduction Australia furious after insurer pulls the plug on pill testing at Groovin the Moo

ACT Health has been contacted for further information.

ANU Medical School lecturer and Pill Testing Australia chemical lead Dr David Caldicott has been heavily involved in developing the fixed pill testing site in Canberra and said the lack of support for the service from insurance companies is nothing new.

“It’s been flagged for a while around Australia that insurance companies are less than enthusiastic to insure these types of drug and alcohol services,” he said.

“That’s despite the fact it’s been well-documented since 2002 that there’s no evidence that pill testing increases the risk of deaths or harm [from drugs]. In fact, it actually reduces those things.

“There is no evidence, at all, anywhere, that organised pill testing increases risk at festivals.”

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Insurance is also needed to run Canberra’s yet-to-be-opened fixed pill testing service.

But Dr Caldicott said as far as he’s concerned, everything is running on schedule.

“The protocols and processes have been developed as part of a wide team. The systems and policies running it are being refined as we speak,” he said.

“It’s gone beyond hypothetical at this point.”

The static pill testing and safe injecting room were announced as part of the ACT Government’s most recent budget.

Dr Caldicott said along with providing a public health service, the site offers an exciting opportunity for researchers and outreach workers.

“A fixed-site allows us to track what’s going on with drug users in Canberra. It’s invaluable,” he said.

“It allows us to have conversations with people who are habitual users of drugs [which may not be the case at festivals]. We can learn a lot about why they chose to use them.

“A lot of these kinds of people don’t view themselves as habitual or problematic drug users, so they’re not necessarily engaging with health services, which means they’re people we don’t usually hear about.”

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In the case of the Groovin the Moo festival in Canberra, Dr Caldicott said there’s a “big fat ‘please explain'” over the insurer’s decision to remove its coverage.

“It was insured on Monday, 18 April, then was not insured Tuesday, 19 April, yet the plans had been with them for months,” he said.

“The analogy I use is it’s like refusing to insure a rock climbing centre that’s offering harnesses and helmets.

“[The last time pill testing was conducted] at the festival, we had no hospital visits for drug-related harm; now we’ll see what happens at this one.”

Dr Caldicott said the decision by the insurance company has caused a lot of anger and was something that needs to be stopped across the insurance platform.

“What’s disgraceful is that private insurance companies, who have a lot of inputs, for them to have the power to say yes or no to an intervention that is entirely supported by experts is unethical and immoral,” he said.

“They have a duty to the public as well as their shareholders … individual companies involved in that kind of behaviour should be deselected by government agencies so public health services can be implemented.”

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