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Health retreat run by banned wellness coach Barbara O’Neill under investigation

Australia’s charities watchdog is investigating the activities of an exclusive health retreat run by the disgraced wellness coach Barbara O’Neill, who has been banned from practising for life after giving potentially fatal health advice to vulnerable clients.

Earlier in October the Health Care Complaints Commission found O’Neill told people the debunked theory that their cancer was a fungus that could be cured with bicarbonate soda rather than through conventional medical treatment, and gave misleading and dangerous pregnancy and child-rearing advice through her seminars, website, online lectures and consultations with clients.

The commission’s investigation found O’Neill never held any membership with any accredited professional health organisation and had failed to obtain any relevant health-related degrees or diplomas.

She has been permanently barred from providing any health services either voluntarily or in a paid capacity, including giving lectures.

But the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission [Acnc] has received numerous complaints about the Misty Mountain Health Retreat charity affiliated with O’Neill and which her husband, Michael O’Neill, chairs.

As an Acnc-registered health promotion charity, Misty Mountain Health Retreat receives government grants and various tax concessions. Its most recent financial report states that the charity operates live-in health centres in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people with chronic and terminal illnesses receive diet, exercise and health advice. Michael O’Neill was the founder and Senate candidate for the Involuntary Medication Objectors (Vaccination/Fluoride) party in the May 2019 federal election. The party is anti-vaccination and is sceptical of conventional, evidence-based medicine.

A complaint made to Acnc investigators and seen by Guardian Australia alleges the Misty Mountain Health Retreat’s activities are outside the legal requirements for a health promotion charity, given it “operates what is effectively a wellness holiday resort”.

“Misty Mountain Health Retreat’s unqualified staff give its clients erroneous advice,” the complaint, made by the dietician and nutritionist Mandy-Lee Noble, alleges. “The clients are at risk if they act on it.”

The Acnc website states the legal meaning of ‘health promotion charity’ is a charitable institution whose principal activity is to promote the prevention or the control of diseases in humans. As examples of activities that align with this definition, the Acnc lists raising public awareness of a disease, undertaking medical research, developing or providing aids or equipment, and providing clients and carers with evidence-based health education. The Misty Mountain Health Retreat does not appear to engage in any of those activities.

An image of Barbara O’Neill taken from the Misty Mountain Health Retreat Facebook page where she worked. Photograph: Facebook

The Health Care Complaints Commission investigation into Barbara O’Neill found health lectures given by her, which are promoted by the Misty Mountain Health Retreat, include recommendations not to vaccinate, to use alternative therapies in the place of conventional treatments for cancer and to follow alternative feeding guidelines for infants that are known to be harmful and potentially fatal.

Noble’s complaint alleges that Michael O’Neill’s involvement with an anti-vaccination political party was a conflict of interest with health promotion. An Acnc spokesman said: “The Acnc takes all concerns seriously and will investigate if there is evidence that a charity has failed to comply with its obligations.”

The charity has held various names since its registration in 2012 including the Misty Mountain Aboriginal Healing Place and the Misty Mountain Health and Education Institute. Australian Securities and Investments Commission documents show that in 2017 Michael O’Neill changed the name from Misty Mountain Health and Education Institute to the Misty Mountain Health Retreat because the charity “offers welfare services rather than education services” and therefore should apply to the Australian Taxation Office and Acnc for status as a public benevolent institution, a subtype of charity that can register as deductible gift recipients.

Guardian Australia sent O’Neill a list of questions asking about the welfare services provided by the retreat, and how vulnerable clients including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients paid for these services, with prices ranging from $2,450 for a one-week stay for one person to $8,800 for a two-week stay for two people. Clients can pay for additional treatments including an $85 facial or $100 per hour colonic irrigation.

O’Neill did not respond to the questions, and instead sent a screenshot of a letter from an Aboriginal woman, who Guardian Australia has not named, from Port Macquarie who said she did casual work at the retreat. “Michael O’Neill has shown me your email questions where you are trying to put Misty Mountain Health Retreat in a bad light,” she wrote. “There are many in our community that owe there [sic] improved health to Misty and Barbara [O’Neill]. Don’t use our people to do your dirty work.”

The charity’s expenses listed in financial documents include a Hyundai excavator loan of $23,830 and an Isuzu truck loan for $28,472. At one point, the charity also offered clients helicopter rides. The O’Neills did not respond to questions on how these purchases were used by the charity. Its 2018 financial report states profits dropped from $120,278 in 2017 to $5,045 in 2018, and that the charity received $400 in government grants. Their annual statements for 2014-2017 list government grants totalling $6,440.

A spokesman for the Health Care Complaints Commission said the activities of Barbara O’Neill were being monitored closely. “Presenting health education in any form or delivering health services, would be a breach of her prohibition order,” he said. “The prohibition order applies in NSW, Vic, Qld and SA. In general, if the material is accessible in [those jurisdictions] online, then it is considered to be delivering a health service.”

Barbara O’Neill issued a statement published by an online petition that has been launched in support of her work. “Thank you all for the wonderful love and support that you have given through this challenging time,” she said. “It looks a bit dark now, but the Great God of the Universe will not let His wonderful health truth to be eliminated, regardless of how men and women may try.”

Later in October she will deliver a wellness program at the Living Springs Retreat in the US, with the retreat promoting her as “a qualified naturopath, nutritionist, lecturer, and author”. The program costs US$2,350 [AU$3,500]. Ken McLeod, a spokesman for the Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network, alerted Living Springs to the Health Care Complaints Commission findings. In a response seen by Guardian Australia, the retreat told McLeod “the whole story is not being told to the public”.

“Many things have been taken out of context,” the statement said. “We will not be responding to any other negative messages.”

McLeod described the response as “unconscionable”.

“How could Living Springs continue to provide O’Neill’s seminars in light of their knowledge of the Health Care Complaints Commission findings. Clearly there should be a thorough investigation into their holding of tax deductibility and exemptions and that investigation should uncover how they got charity status in the first place.”

Do you know more? melissa.davey@theguardian.com