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Wednesday, 22 August 2001
Page: 30063


Mr ALLAN MORRIS (11:55 AM) —The Health and Aged Care Legislation Amendment (Application of Criminal Code) Bill 2001 is a very small bill, but it does contain some interesting aspects. It shifts the responsibility for false and misleading statements into the area of the Criminal Code and other parts of the law. What is interesting in this bill is that people applying to the government or the minister for funds can now be seen to be in breach of the code if they make false or misleading statements. On the other hand, if the minister makes remarks about the people applying which are false and misleading, the minister will be applauded by the government. There seem to be two sides to justice here.

The example I want to refer to is St Catherine's of Siena at Waratah, which is a nursing home run by Catholic Care of the Aged. It is an excellent facility but has announced that it has been forced to close. The minister, in response to questioning from the Newcastle media, said that it was due to bad management, that it is all their fault. If you look at the organisation and its figures, the actual operating costs have come down in the last year but then, of course, so did the grant. The Commonwealth subsidy was reduced by $150,000 between last year and this year. The minister says that the government have actually given the nursing home more money when, in fact, they have given them less money.

The minister then says that the government gave this nursing home some money for extensions in 1997. The government might have paid the bill, but the money was not given by this minister. The money was given by the previous government back in 1995 from a capital grants program, which was wiped out in 1996. But because the commitment was made, the government was forced to pay it. The constant use of false and misleading information by this Minister for Aged Care is criminal. I would have thought it would be nice to have the code apply both ways. If St Catherine's were to apply and put false information in their application, they would be charged with an offence, yet the minister publicly and constantly makes false and misleading statements about the organisation and its funding and gets applauded by her backbench.

People need to understand that back in 1996 this government did a series of things which it now wants to forget about. It cut huge amounts of money from a number of different programs. The government cut $500 million from the residential aged care program—half a billion dollars was chopped out of that program over the following four years. The government then starts quoting figures about how much it spent, but it is always after that time. The government does not want to make the link between the years.

The wiping out of the capital grants program for nursing homes has been an absolute disaster. The complete change in funding for nursing homes has been a disaster. We are seeing nursing homes now falling over and collapsing, not through bad management but because the government has totally changed the system to a model that does not work anymore; it is not a workable model. The $12 a day for capital replacement is non-viable; it does not work. The minister is blaming the victim. This is an incredible government for blaming the victim. If anything goes wrong, it is the victim's fault; it is the fault of the person complaining or suffering. We hear that almost daily. We are hearing it now about the doctors as well. It is quite fascinating to hear the Minister for Health and Aged Care blaming the doctors for the medical problems. For years we listened to him blaming us in government for the medical problems which doctors face; now he is blaming the victim.

The government cut half a billion dollars from the nursing home budget and then spent it. The government did not put the money away and save it; the government spent it. The $12 billion in tax cuts last year did not come from the GST; they came from health, aged care, and home and community care. In 1996, $18 million was cut from HACC. This program, which we desperately needed to expand, was actually reduced. They spent all the money from the dental care program and all the other programs that were cut in 1996. It is not as if we can find the money and then restore the program or as if the government can say, `We made a mistake,' and then correct that. We cannot do that because the money has been spent. It was spent on tax cuts, half of which went to the top 20 per cent of income earners. The tax cuts were so biased towards the wealthy, yet it was the poor who were paying. Those who suffered from those cuts were predominantly people on low incomes, people with difficulties, people in nursing homes, people seeking health care, people seeking home and community care, and people seeking education. The cuts were targeted to one group and the benefits went to the other group. So the people who benefited were not the people who were hurt the most by the cuts. Then this government wants to boast about the money that is spent on aged care.

I understand the problems of the government backbench, and I do not doubt that privately many of them have the same anxieties and the same concerns that I have when watching this system now spiralling towards collapse. This is not because of the organisations. Catholic Care of the Aged and St Catherine's in Newcastle are managed by Mr Ralph Watson. Ralph Watson has been an impeccable operator. He has worked in health care and aged care for 15 to 20 years. His record is unmatched as a decent, competent and capable citizen. He has now been accused of being incompetent and his nursing home has closed. That is an absolute slur on his reputation and on his ability. The poor man has said, `Come and look at my figures.'

The subsidy has gone down and there were changes to the assessment scale back in 1997. The government said that we have to take into account dementia and behavioural problems in nursing homes because it has now become a major problem. So, rather than creating a new category for those, they just took over the old category. St Catherine's in particular suffered because suddenly behavioural problems became a key part of the assessment process to receive maximum funding. They could not take people with behavioural problems. Most of their people are bedridden but do not have behavioural problems. So they get less support than if they had behavioural problems.

The change to the classification scale in 1997 cost them $200,000 a year. Bang! Chop! The minister said, `You can afford to do it for $200,000 a year less.' What a nonsense! We all understand that what has been happening with medicine has been wonderful and what has been happening with medical care has been great because people are living longer. This has meant that nursing homes have residents who are more dependent for longer periods. People are not dying as early as they used to in nursing homes. But there is a cost to this.

Nursing home costs are going up. The government says, `You do not need to have nurses anymore,' so we now have nursing homes where for parts of the day they do not have any nurses. Why? Because the only way they can cope is by cutting down the staffing costs and by getting rid of professional staff. There is going to be a scandal one day. I do not doubt it will be very long until somebody dies when the person on duty was not a nurse and where the care they got was not adequate. There will be a major scandal. The government will say, `It's all their own fault; they did that.' Of course they did not do it.

The government is actually forcing deskilling in nursing homes. It is forcing them to lower their standards. Every day the minister boasts about its standards, but the same minister changed the laws and the rules that required nursing homes to have nurses on duty 24 hours a day. That used to be a fundamental requirement of a nursing home. What is a nursing home without a nurse? I wonder what that is called. It is not a nursing home if there are no nurses there. Not to have professional staff on duty 24 hours a day is not just unreasonable, it is dangerous.

Then we have this bill talking about harmonising false and misleading statements—not by the minister but by everybody else—in the Criminal Code. I do not doubt that within the next few months we will see some more nursing homes fail. I have talked to some around the countryside. I once chaired a parliamentary inquiry into home and community care. I do have a lot of contacts in the field, and the feedback I am getting is that it is disastrous. These are not people lobbying or pleading a political issue; these are people asking what on earth they should do. They say, `Nobody is listening to us. The minister tells us it is our fault and we do not know where to turn.'

There is a problem now with corporate law—if they trade when they might be insolvent, it is dangerous. Charities cannot raise money anymore, because people are not giving in the same way. So we are seeing organisations relying on chook raffles to maintain their nursing homes, being forced to deskill their organisations by not having professional staff on duty because that is the only way they can save money, and being faced with the decision to keep going or close.

I guarantee that more nursing homes will announce their closure before the next election. I also guarantee that the minister will blame them. The government will blame everybody else and say, `We've got a wonderful system. We all think that. It's just tough if no-one else agrees with it.' The arrogance of that position is unbelievable. The government and the minister changed the system. They did not consult the industry. They did not ask people what the best thing was. They did not have an inquiry and work out a better model. Those changes came out of thin air. Someone in the Department of Finance and Administration said, `You can save a bucket of money here. Here is half a billion dollars, Treasurer; chop half a billion dollars out of nursing homes—they are all overprovided for.' And they did. In 1996, Finance had a field day. The government fell for it like you would not believe and the backbench went along with it.

Those chickens are coming home to roost. The cuts made by Finance officers who did not know what they were talking about, who did not know the industry, who did not know the organisations, are now coming back to haunt them. It has been five years and the wind-down has been continual. Every year it has gotten worse and worse. Before the year is out, before the election comes, nursing homes will be announcing that they can no longer survive. I am appealing to the government backbench, because I know that in every government member's electorate there are nursing homes in difficulty. At least one nursing home in each electorate is facing real problems. We either take the minister's point of view and blame the nursing homes or we try and find an answer. We need an answer. We need to solve the problem, not blame the victim.

The tragedy was that those Finance cuts were savage. The dental care program, the HACC program, the aged care residential program and the state health programs were all cut. You may think it was for the good of the country, but it was not. All those programs and a bit more went when the tax cuts were introduced last year to pay for the GST. The GST did not pay for those tax cuts; they were paid for by the poor people in this country who need services. The suffering that those people have gone through and are still going through will stay until such time as someone recognises what the real issue is.

This is one of the last chances I will have in this place to speak about aged care and nursing homes. I am sorry that I am coming to this particular debate so angry, but I am at my wit's end. I know of six or seven people in a nursing home which they love—in many cases that nursing home has been their home for many years—who are being forced to leave. There is nowhere for them to go. Their families are distraught. They are distraught. I have not got an answer. The minister says that it is their own fault. I say, `Minister, it is not their fault. They did not change the rules.' The minister changed the rules. The minister changed the funding. Unless somebody in the government faces up to the problem, we are going to have people all over this country in the same boat as the people at St Catherine's. I implore the government backbenchers to make this minister face reality, because eventually she is going to have to.