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Tuesday, 31 October 2006
Page: 70

Mrs HULL (5:40 PM) —I rise today to support the Aged Care Amendment (Residential Care) Bill 2006 in the House. As announced in the 2006-07 budget, the amendments in this bill will align the treatment of gifting and income streams for aged-care asset-testing purposes with the treatment of gifts and income streams for age pension asset-testing purposes. The changes are designed to simplify the interaction of the aged-care and pension arrangements for greater transparency and to facilitate wise financial planning for older Australians. This bill will also improve the sustainability of aged-care financing arrangements.

The purpose of the bill is to respond to concerns raised in consultations with the community that prospective residents who purchased an income stream after 20 September 2004 could possibly be disadvantaged. Some investment products that generate income streams are purchased using a person’s assets, and currently the money used to buy these income streams is fully exempted from the aged-care assets assessment.

But if you listened to the comments of those opposite in this debate you would not understand that the bill was in fact to simplify and address agreements with respect to assets testing. Those opposite are all about scaremongering. This is all about trying to present something which is not there. It is all about smoke and mirrors, using and playing on words to frighten frail, vulnerable and elderly people and, indeed, scaremongering amongst their families. I have witnessed the kind of scaremongering that we have seen in the House today in the comments that have been made with respect to the second reading amendment the opposition have proposed to this Aged Care Amendment (Residential Care) Bill 2006 that we have sitting in front of us. The opposition’s amendment says that ‘whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House condemns the government’ for these absurd allegations:

(1)   failing to protect our vulnerable aged population by ensuring that all residential aged care facilities receive at least one unannounced spot check every year; and

(2)   rejecting amendments to this bill that would have ensured the promised annual unannounced spot checks were enshrined into legislation”.

For goodness sake, the minister has implemented so many comprehensive protections for people involved in the aged-care system and their families. We have the Aged Care Complaints Resolution Scheme, which was supported by the Charter of Residents Rights and Responsibilities. It forms a significant part of the comprehensive accountability framework for Australian government aged-care homes.

This second reading amendment speaks of the failure to have spot checks. Yet we had a media statement some weeks ago from the Minister for Ageing announcing ‘Aged care spot checks already under way’. The media statement clearly states:

The Howard Government is delivering on its commitment of at least one random spot check for every residential aged care facility every year.

The government has in fact:

... allocated more than $100 million to deliver on a range of commitments ... announced earlier this year to increase the security of residents and ensure the standard of care in aged care facilities. These measures include at least one random spot check per year in each facility.

Again I reiterate there are absurd allegations and claims in the debate on this Aged Care Amendment (Residential Care) Bill 2006. It just shows that the opposition really have no understanding or concept of aged care and its requirements. Their only concern is to get out there and make statements that are scaremongering in the least and simply not acceptable in my Riverina electorate. Then you have the aged-care providers and the nursing home operators having to come out—I did not have to come out and decry Senator Ursula Stephens’s allegations in my electorate of Riverina—and reject Labor Party claims that residential aged care is going backwards in the Riverina-Murray region and that there was a shortage of 187 beds.

Of course, Country Labor is a fallacy in that I have never seen Country Labor vote against city Labor, so I am quite disturbed about Country Labor and how it works. Let Country Labor vote against city Labor occasionally. When there are things that are going to impact on country areas, such as the sale of the Snowy Hydro Scheme proposals et cetera, we did not see anyone coming out and supporting Country Labor and we did not see Country Labor voting against their city counterparts’ desire to sell off assets to get funding to run a campaign in the city areas where their majority vote is. But I will come back to—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. DGH Adams)—I ask the honourable member to return to the bill.

Mrs HULL —I am returning to the issue of Country Labor’s Senator Ursula Stephens’s allegations in my electorate. She said that the June 2000 stocktake of residential aged-care beds in the Riverina-Murray found the region needed more places to cope with demand. As reported in the Daily Advertiser on Thursday, 19 October, the Forrest Centre’s chief executive, Neil Stubbs, said the need for beds in Wagga ebbed and flowed. Of course it ebbs and flows. That is something that obviously Senator Stephens and the opposition do not understand. You cannot determine when a person may vacate a bed or when a person may require a bed. If you have all of these vacant beds, somebody has to pay for it and it is just simply not good business sense. Yet the Forrest Centre says that there was no dramatic shortage of beds for the elderly. The reality is that, as Mr Stubbs says, there are ups and downs in demand because you do not know when people are going to get sick. He said there have been occasions in Wagga Wagga where there has been no waiting list. We are not hearing any horror stories of people waiting in hospital for months to get a bed. They should know—they are the people on the receiving end. Mr Stubbs, as quoted in the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser, said it was important that the number of beds continued to increase as the baby boomer generation aged and needed some level of care. But I can assure you the beds have increased substantially.

In fact, Australia’s current operational ratio of 105.8 aged-care places per 1,000 people aged 70 or more is the highest it has ever been. It compares with the ratio of just 92 places per 1,000 people aged 70 or more when Labor was in power. Labor has a short memory in this House. In addition, Mr Stubbs’s analysis in the Daily Advertiser was backed up by the Haven’s general manager, Shane McMullan, who said there were times when he had a few people on his expressions of interest list but there were also short periods when he had empty beds. Again, we hear the debate in the House. This is all about scaremongering.

When you look at complaints and user rights we have the Australian government and the minister who have responsibly instituted a quality framework which includes the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency, the Aged Care Complaints Resolution Scheme and user rights initiatives including the National Aged Care Advocacy Program and Community Visitors Scheme. These are fabulous schemes and enable more transparency—a concerted amount of transparency—in the industry. All homes are required as part of their accreditation framework to have an internal complaint-handling process and people may choose to use the home’s internal process before contacting the scheme. But there is support and a safety net where this does not resolve issues.

The Australian government also funds a scheme to assist residents and their families and friends or any other parties to resolve complaints about the care or the services provided in Australian government funded aged-care homes. Even in July 2006 the minister, who is doing a fabulous job in this portfolio, announced a commitment of $90.2 million over four years by the Howard-Vaile government to strengthen the arrangements for the handling of aged-care complaints. The new arrangements will replace the current Aged Care Complaints Resolution Scheme with more robust arrangements for dealing with complaints and compliance, including compulsory reporting of incidents such as sexual abuse or serious physical assault and whistleblower protection for those people who report.

The reforms will replace the existing scheme with a new Office for Aged Care Quality and Compliance within the Department of Health and Ageing. These people will have significant power. Again I come back to the debate on the Aged Care Amendment (Residential Care) Bill 2006 and the allegations made therein. I consider them to be absolutely absurd when we are looking at a departmental area that will oversee compliance. They will have significant powers of investigation for all complaints and information. They will have nationally centralised intake and prioritising of all contacts by high-level, specifically trained staff. They will have the powers to determine whether a breach of the approved provider’s responsibilities has occurred and, where a breach is identified, they will have the power to take appropriate action to remedy that breach. They will have the capacity to issue notices of required action to providers who have breached their responsibilities and also to take compliance action where the provider fails to remedy the issue. They will also provide feedback to the complainant on the outcomes. So you will no longer have a person who makes a complaint sitting in the dark. They will know what has taken place, what action has been taken and what penalties, if any, have been imposed. What more could you ask for?

The Australian government and this minister have established a new aged care commissioner who will provide an independent review mechanism. This commissioner will have wide-ranging scope to hear complaints about action taken by the Office for Aged Care Quality and Compliance from care recipients, carers, aged-care staff, providers of aged care and members of the community. This measure is coupled with the announcement earlier in the year on the introduction of police checks. The minister moved quickly and assertively to ensure that no elderly person would be in a position whereby their security and safety could not be investigated and the families, particularly, of elderly people could not feel assured.

Many times when I go to accreditation presentations I am in awe of the efforts gone to by the staff and the management of the facilities. I did one at Heyday just recently. The staff’s dedication to the residents of Heyday is absolute. I was so proud of them because they work in conditions that sometimes are challenging in an outback community. It is difficult to get qualified staff in many of the areas, but here we have community members who are caring for their elderly. They have probably known them since birth and they are out there making sure that the days of an aged Australian are quality days. When I go to these aged-care accreditation presentations, as I have said, I am in awe of the efforts of the staff in ensuring the safety of elderly people and in ensuring peace of mind for family members who have to put an aged person into a facility because they may be working full time and unable to care for that person at home or for a variety of reasons.

Earlier this year, in April, after we had some issues recognised, the minister introduced police checks and additional unannounced visits to aged-care homes by the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency. It will provide a greater capacity to ensure that we deliver improved and quality of care to recipients of government subsidised aged care. We have so many programs it is almost taking up all of my speaking time just to refute this ridiculous amendment that is not for the purposes of good but for the purposes of mischief making and scaremongering, as happened just a few weeks ago in my electorate.

I do not appreciate the people of the Riverina being scared and concerned when there is clearly no need to be. We in the Riverina have offered an enormous level of service and assistance to Riverina residents and beyond in aged-care facilities, and I am very proud of our achievements as a government. I am very proud of the additional beds that we have been able to allocate in Cootamundra, Hay, Moree, Leeton and Wagga Wagga. I am so proud of all that this government has done to fill a vast void of care and concern that was left over from 13 years of Labor rule—and that was an inadequacy of beds for the aged and really no policy platform or forward planning and thinking to determine how we were going to meet the needs of the aged Australians who have contributed so much to our economy, to our lives and to Australia in general. They did not deserve a forward plan of thinking when Labor were seeking to be elected in 1996.

I will move on to the National Aged Care Advocacy Program. To support residents, this government and this minister have funded the National Aged Care Advocacy Program. This is an aged-care advocacy service that operates in each state and territory—with two in the Northern Territory—to assist people to exercise their rights through various advocacy processes, including advice and support. These advocacy services are operated by community based organisations. Who better to look after the interests of ageing people than people from the community who, as I have indicated previously, have sometimes great knowledge of the residents in these homes? These advocacy services encourage policy and practices which protect our consumers. They also promote the rights of consumers through educational programs and information provisions. Advocacy services complement the role of the Aged Care Complaints Resolution Scheme within the Australian government’s quality assurance framework. Advocacy services are available to all consumers of government funded aged care, as well as their representatives and their families. What is more important is that advocacy services are free, independent and confidential.

I will move on to the very popular visitors scheme. Our Community Visitors Scheme is working a treat in the Riverina. We are very proud of the way in which Riverina people always rally. They always raise the most money; they always put up their facilities when they have not been able to be delivered in other areas. This Community Visitors Scheme enriches the quality of life of residents in our aged-care homes who may be socially isolated or lonely.

Some of our aged-care residents live extraordinarily lonely lives because their families do not live in their town anymore. I am proud that my daughter-in-law is a volunteer for the Community Visitors Scheme. She has made an amazing difference to the lovely lady she visits and cares for and to whom she provides nurturing, understanding, conversation and genuine, true friendship and affection. This lady does not have any family members. She has never married and has not experienced a lot of care from extended family members. I would like to thank the minister for the bill and, again, say that the amendment is quite absurd.