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Tuesday, 22 June 1999
Page: 7053


Mr ZAHRA (9:51 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Aged Care Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 1999 . The mark of any civilised society is the way they care for the most disadvantaged in their community. Amongst the most disadvantaged in our community in Australia certainly are the aged, and in particular the frail aged. When you look at the way this government has looked after the most disadvantaged in our community, I think you would have to give them a fairly poor score. When you look at the way they have treated the indigenous people in our community and the way they have cut funding and shown a contemptuous view to our indigenous Australians, I think you would have to say that that reflects a fairly poor attitude on their part to helping a group within the community which is particularly disadvantaged.

When you look at the way they have treated young people—a group of people who are growing increasingly alienated from the mainstream in Australia—and the way they have introduced programs like Work for the Dole and have cut the common youth allow ance and regional universities and TAFE colleges, I think you would have to give them a fairly poor score. When it comes to the elderly, in particular the frail elderly who are in nursing homes, I think that by any assessment people objectively looking at the performance of this government would have to say that the government has failed the elderly in our community.

I welcome one provision in particular in this bill—that is, the provision which allows for the repayment of the asset tested aged care levy of $12 a day introduced by this government over the last few years. We had a situation in my electorate where this was of particular importance. This bill attempts, and this is why I am very pleased to see that it is included in the provisions of this bill, to allow for the repayment of moneys which have been incorrectly paid by these people to nursing homes—that is, those people who were asked to pay this extra asset tested charge of $12 a day because they were put in a nursing home after October 1997. That money is now going to be repaid to them.

We had this situation in my electorate. It attracted an enormous amount of community attention. People in the community of McMillan appreciate that, whilst it is happening to only a small number of people now, and I think it only affected 12 or 14 people, it stands to affect a significant number of people in the future. They care about the way the elderly are looked after now because they recognise that it will be their mums and dads and their relatives in the future. This has always been the strength of people in the Latrobe Valley in particular and of people in McMillan more generally.

I think it is worth mentioning the details of the particular nursing home which I am referring to for the information of this House. This is probably the second or third time I have spoken about this issue in this chamber, such is its importance in my electorate. What happened in my electorate was that the Latrobe Valley Nursing Home was privatised when the Latrobe Regional Hospital in the Latrobe Valley was privatised. Quite simply, the ramifications of this meant that the Latrobe Valley Nursing Home was put out to tender by the Department of Human Services and in the end a group called Croft Health Care Vic Pty Ltd took over the operations of that nursing home. This is the only nursing home in the town of Moe.

The town of Moe is no rinky-dink little country town. It is a town which supports a population of 17,000 people. This is the only nursing home in that town. Croft Health Care Vic took over the operation of this nursing home and, as part of the deal done with the Department of Human Services, relocated and built a brand new nursing home. It did not exactly move the nursing home to another town; it moved the nursing home about two streets away from where it was. It moved it from Ollerton Avenue to another part of Moe. This does not represent an enormous move on behalf of a nursing home, yet it took this opportunity when it moved residence from this one part of Moe to another part of Moe to reclassify existing residents as new residents which allowed them, for the purposes of the legislation, to charge this additional new asset tested fee of up to $12 per day.

As I mentioned, we are not talking about a large number of people, but the number of people we are talking about is almost irrelevant. If it happens to one person, it is a problem. In the case of the Latrobe Valley, it happened to at least 12, 13 or 14 people, but I am not sure of the exact figure. These people who were relocated from this publicly run nursing home in Moe to this new privately run facility just up the road were charged this additional new fee. An extra $12 a day to people who do not have much money is a significant amount to be expected to pay. About half a dozen families approached me and said, `Christian, you've got to help us out with this situation because, basically, we have now become desperate as a result of this additional new fee.' People were very concerned that the tiny amount of money which a lot of families and estates have been able to save up in the course of their working lives stood to be eaten up in the course of the imposition of this additional new fee.

It is worth mentioning in this chamber the type of work which we do in the Latrobe Valley. Quite a few members would under stand that the Latrobe Valley region is one which supports the power industry. It is very hard work which these men and women who work in that sector do. I mention this only to paint a picture to this House, because I think it is important to understand the level of commitment which the people who are in this particular nursing home have made.

These men and women who are in this nursing home have often worked their whole lives in the power industry, in a hard industry often with very few occupational health and safety standards and long hours expected of them. They have struggled their whole lives and have tried to achieve the best for their children through their struggle and sacrifice. In their moment of greatest need in aged care and after paying taxes their whole lives, these people get shunted off into this private nursing home and have this additional new fee imposed upon them. This fee stood to take away from them a significant amount of the money which they would have been able to pass on to their children.

From the point of view of ordinary working people, probably amongst the most important things you can do in your life is pay for your home and hopefully have something to pass on to your children when you pass on. For these people who worked and struggled their whole lives in a really hard industry, that very special thing they had which they wanted to pass on to their children—that is, their assets—stood to be taken away from them. I consider that a very unfair thing. In the case of Narracan Gardens aged care facility, run by Croft Health Care Vic Pty Ltd, headed by Graeme Croft, this company made a decision that they would reclassify these relocated existing residents in the new nursing home and call them new residents. I consider this to be a most improper decision on their part. I think it reflects why we need to be so cautious in aged care when we consider the role of the private sector.

The nature of the private sector in aged care is perhaps understandably to make a dollar. My view is that in aged care we need to put in place structures which maximise the care ahead of the profit. Certainly this was not the case. It contrasts, I think, quite well with the situation which occurred in Bendigo. The Bendigo Health Care Group found itself in a very similar situation where it had relocated residents from its community run nursing home into another new facility which it had built and found that it was perhaps legally possible for it to charge this additional new fee.

The Bendigo Health Care Group, which is a public health care group, took a decision that it would not impose this additional new fee. I applaud the Bendigo Health Care Group for making that decision. I think it reflects its commitment to the community and I think it reflects the right attitude to aged care—that is, we are not here to make a buck out of these people; we are here to respect these people. The spirit of the legislation did not really allow for those people who were existing residents to be charged this fee; it was supposed to be for new residents. I think the Bendigo Health Care Group did the right thing.

Given that it has done the right thing—and in my view Croft Health Care in the Latrobe Valley did the wrong thing—I think it is important for me to point out to this chamber that Croft Health Care Vic, which charged a dozen people in the Latrobe Valley this additional new fee, which equates to about $3,500 each, will be able to hang on to the money that it has collected and the money will be repaid to the residents. So the Bendigo Health Care Group, which has done the right thing and not charged that fee, will now miss out on around $35,000 or thereabouts from the Commonwealth government.

So you have this obscene situation where the Bendigo Health Care Group has done the right thing and the Croft Health Care in the Latrobe Valley run by Graham Croft has done the greedy private sector thing and has not respected the residents, and it will be allowed to get away with it. It will get an extra $35,000 from the Commonwealth, which I do not think it should get. I think that is an important point to make and often in politics and public life these obscene situations can be thrown up, but I think it is important for this House to recognise that the government's failings with regard to aged care have thrown up this particular, I think, quite obscene situation.

There remains a number of unresolved issues with regard to this bill. I raise them on behalf of my constituents because I am sure that the half a dozen or so families who have approached me about this issue will ask that they be addressed by this parliament. Quite simply, people want to know when they will receive the $3,500 which they are owed from the Commonwealth. People want to know a date when they are going to get that money back from the Commonwealth. Given the history and behaviour of Graham Croft and Croft Health Care Vic Pty Ltd in the Latrobe Valley, I have to tell you that there is not a whole lot of goodwill towards Mr Croft and they do not particularly trust him. So I think it is important that the minister at some point clarifies exactly when that money should be paid to them. They simply do not trust the advice which they are given by Graham Croft in this case, and I think it is important that the Commonwealth set out exactly when that money should be repaid.

There is also a question as to whether any interest will be paid on the money which is outstanding. There has been around $3,500, I think quite clearly, unfairly collected. I think these people could well argue that interest should be paid on the $3,500 that has been held for a period of 12 or 14 months or however long it has been.

There is a more complicated issue as well, which I will not try to address in the short period of time I have available tonight. The issue is: what about those people who have actually passed away since this has all happened? The nature of nursing homes now in 1999 is that when you are admitted to a nursing home today you are at the high end of the need scale—that is, quite typically, you do not see people living in nursing homes for many years on end as perhaps you once did five or 10 years ago. My question is: for those people whose estates are owed money—that is, those people's families who are owed money because of this mistake which has been made by the federal government—when will those families be approached, how will they be approached and when will they receive their money which is owed to them? I think these are significant issues which the government needs to address.

I would also like to mention briefly here tonight my views about the role of the private sector in aged care. I think it is terribly important that we be cautious about the role of the private sector in aged care. I am certainly not someone who would blindly pursue a zero private sector approach in the aged care sector. However, in those circumstances where we are talking seriously about alternative modes of delivery of aged care services and looking to the private sector or perhaps other groups—other non-government groups—to deliver those services, we need to be cautious always of the role of the private sector, given that its very intuitive decision making is all about making a dollar. Certainly in the case of Croft Health Care Vic Pty Ltd and the nursing home in Moe, I have had several complaints from residents concerning the standard of care. I should point out that they have nothing to do with the hardworking and committed staff there, but rather the resource levels which have been made available by the manager of Croft Health Care Vic.

I think this is a substantial issue. It is probably very important for my generation of public office holders because, as has been pointed out by the member for Bradfield in particular, this is going to be an extremely significant issue for people in public life over the next 15, 20, 25 years. I hope I will still be representing the seat of McMillan all those years from now.

In my experience in the aged care sector in my electorate of McMillan—I have probably been to most of the aged care hostels and nursing homes in my electorate—I have been impressed time and time again by the high level of commitment of the dedicated staff. I think they really are the unsung heroes of that sector in that, given the amount of funding which has been cut and the amount of pressure which has been placed on them, in particular by accreditation, they keep delivering day in day out to people who are amongst the most disadvantaged group within that community, and by that I mean the frail elderly.

The accreditation process is something that is also worth mentioning in this place. Accreditation is, I think, broadly supported by people on both sides of politics in Australia. My concern is quite simply that not enough resources are being given to the community sector in particular to allow them to get through the accreditation exercise. I have come across a number of nursing homes in my electorate in which people in roles within those nursing homes are being expected to contribute to the accreditation process, to the detriment of other work which they are doing. As all honourable members in this House would understand, if the work does not get done it simply does not get done—there are no little fairies in nursing homes who go around and do the work for you.

My concern is that we have set the high jump bar higher now for nursing homes, including community run nursing homes, without really providing them with the resourcing and support which they need to meet the new standards. I am very conscious of that because I think the privately run nursing homes often have considerable resources, as the honourable member for Bradfield mentioned in his remarks. He mentioned some of the fine things which they have in life, such as Bentleys and a few other extravagances. That tells me that he fundamentally agrees with our view that these people have significant resources and that they can afford to invest heavily in the accreditation process.

On 1 January 2001, no-one will receive a dollar of Commonwealth subsidy for aged care facilities unless they are accredited. What this really means is that those community run nursing homes will be at a disadvantage because they do not have the resources up-front to be able to get on with the accreditation exercise. We need to make sure that those community run facilities are not left behind. It would be a very sad thing indeed if we ended up with a quickening of the privatisation process in aged care as a result simply of community run facilities not being given adequate resources to meet the accreditation standards.

In conclusion, this debate most importantly needs to be about ensuring public confidence in the aged care system in Australia. There must be public confidence in Australia's aged care system, and it must be accountable, because over the next 25 to 30 years more and more of our relatives, our friends, our workmates, their parents, our cousins—all the people we know and mix with in our community—will be accessing support from an aged care facility. Families will not access support, and they will not access that support comfortably, unless they believe that the aged care facilities that their loved ones are going into are quality facilities where they will get the support which they deserve.

We provide around $30,000 worth of Commonwealth subsidy per nursing home bed, depending on the particular nursing home bed, and we really need to make sure that we put some caveats on that funding. We cannot just give money out without knowing exactly what people are doing with those funds. It is extremely important that we make sure that that money is spent in accordance with the high standards which Labor had when we were in government last, when we put in place a more stringent set of criteria for nursing homes and the funding which we provided to them. I conclude by simply stating my commitment to the aged care sector and to making sure that we have high quality community run facilities where possible—privately run, but controlled and properly checked by appropriate government mechanisms as well—and that the high standard of aged care facilities in Australia is maintained and improved so that everyone in this country can put their loved ones there with confidence. (Time expired)