Monday, September 22, 2008

Cut off: electricity debt deadly for oxygen machine woman

A decision by a power company to cut electricity to the home of a New Zealand woman on an oxygen machine who owed them money contributed to her death, a coroner has found.

Coroner Gordon Matenga today handed down his findings into the death of Folole Muliaga whose death made international headlines last year and prompted debate about corporate responsibility.

Ms Muliaga, 45, died on May 29 last year owing the government-owned Mercury Energy $138.

Her death occurred just hours after power to her Mangere, Auckland, home was cut off for non-payment.

"The cessation of oxygen therapy and the stress arising from the fact of the disconnection (as opposed to the way in which the power was disconnected) have contributed to her death," the coroner found.

He said Ms Muliaga was morbidly obese at the time of her death, and she died of arrhythmia following the disconnection.

Soon after her death, her family accused a contractor who carried out the disconnection of knowing she was reliant on an oxygen machine to breathe.

But the coroner found that while the contractor, only known to the court as Mr A, would have had to walk over a tube running from the oxygen machine, he did not notice it.

"Neither Folole Muliaga nor (her son) Ietitaia has said anything to Mr A which would a alert him to Mrs Muliaga's state of health, her use of the oxygen machine, or her need for the power to remain connected to that the machine remained operational," the coroner said.

"I am satisfied that had either Ietitaia Muliaga or Mrs Muliaga told Mr A that electricity was needed to run a machine which provided oxygen to Mrs Muliaga that Mr A would have exercised his discretion in favour of no disconnection," Matenga said.

The coroner said that government-owned business Mercury Energy, or its parent company Mighty River Power, were bound by laws that included the need to show social responsibility.

He said guidelines for New Zealand's electricity industry were in place at the time of Muliaga's death, and Mercury Energy had not fully complied with them.

While the guidelines said customers who thought they faced excessive hardship from a disconnection should let the retailer know, the guidelines also said information should be supplied on how to do this.

"Mercury Energy did not provide information about self-identification for such vulnerable customers," the coroner found.

"It is perhaps no surprise then that the Muliaga family did not advise Mercury Energy of Mrs Muliaga's medication condition," he said.

The coroner was also critical of the processes of the Counties Manukau Health Board, which ran the Middlemore hospital where Muliaga was treated just weeks prior to her death.

He said a letter that may have been given to Muliaga when she left hospital was written clearly for a medical audience.

"A patient such as Mrs Muliaga would probably not read past the first paragraph in the letter. It is not an effective piece of communication from the patient's point of view," he said.

He was critical of the hospital's Do Not Attempt Resuscitation policy, detailing how patients and their significant others should be told about the benefits and risks of resuscitation.

"There is no record that any informed discussion took place with Mrs Muliaga and there was no discussion with members of Mrs Muliaga's family.

"This is not good enough," he said.

Vircom EMS, the company contracted by Mercury Energy which cut the power to Muliaga's home, welcomed the coroner's findings.

"Vircom has reviewed the findings carefully and accepts the statements made by the coroner in relation to the company, its contractors and staff and their actions," the company said in a statement today.

"The sympathies of the company remain with the family," it said.


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