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Wednesday, 14 February 2007
Page: 110

Mrs MAY (5:06 PM) —I rise in support of the Aged Care Amendment (Security and Protection) Bill 2007 as I strongly believe the measures contained in the bill further safeguard older Australians with increased protection and improvement to the overall quality of care delivered to them when they are resident in Australian government subsidised aged care facilities. When the minister announced the $90.2 million package of reforms in July last year he foreshadowed at the time that the reforms would include the creation of a new aged care commissioner, new complaints investigation procedures, a regime of compulsory reporting of certain types of assault, and legislative protections for whistleblowers.

The bill before the House today builds on the reforms of last year and delivers the commitments made by the minister when he announced those reforms. The reforms last year introduced requirements for police background checks for aged care workers and certain volunteers in Australian government subsidised aged-care services. Also introduced were more frequent unannounced inspections of aged-care homes by the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency. These reforms were welcomed by the community. In particular, they were welcomed by families and friends of those older Australians who were in aged-care facilities. In fact, I believe the measures being introduced today and those last year have been in response to community expectations of how old Australians are cared for and will be cared for in the future.

I have a close association with many of the aged-care providers in my electorate. In fact, I visit many of the facilities on a regular basis so I can meet and chat with the patients. These visits enable me to ascertain for myself whether those older Australians are happy and receiving the care they need. It is amazing what these very special constituents will share with you over a cup of tea. Some do raise issues of concern but these issues are often very simple to rectify. With the close working relationship I have with my providers I have no problem in raising any issues that residents have and I have always found staff and the providers more than happy to accommodate residents’ concerns wherever possible.

In McPherson I have 17 aged-care facilities offering different levels of care: dementia-specific care, high and low care, special and independent care and respite for families. Some of the facilities are run by well-respected church organisations—by Blue Care and Lutheran Aged Care—and others by private providers such as the McKenzie family, who recently opened Sandbrook, and Don Brearly, who owns and operates Villa Serena at Robina.

Many of the newer facilities have been opened only in the last couple of years. The Hon. Tony Abbott officially opened Hill View at Merrimac last year. The team at Hill View do a wonderful job caring for older Australians in this beautiful facility, and they have forged a very strong relationship with their neighbour Merrimac State School. The partnership between the home and the local school has brought together younger members of the community with older Australians. I understand the partnership continues to grow stronger and stronger.

The RSL aged-care facility at Currumbin is a wonderful example of caring for many of our returned service men and women. A special Anzac Day ceremony is held at the facility which is well attended by the local community. Each of the facilities has special attributes and I know that the majority of aged-care providers give excellent care. In fact, many of the workers I speak to regard their duty of care to our vulnerable, frail and older Australians as paramount. Strong bonds of friendship are forged, and I know many staff who have grieved like a family member when one of their patients has passed away.

Although we have excellent facilities delivering optimum care, it is our responsibility as a government to continue to strengthen the legislation, particularly in light of a number of unfortunate incidents, including alleged sexual and physical abuse, which came to light last year. These types of incidents should not and will not be tolerated by this government. The community expects a high standard of care for our older Australians and, through the bill before the House today, that high standard of care will continue. The system will be improved and made more effective by the measures before the House to ensure that physical and sexual abuse is reported through a compulsory reporting scheme which will protect the people who make the disclosures about abuse.

The bill establishes a requirement for approved providers to report allegations or suspicions of unlawful sexual contact or unreasonable use of force on a resident in a residential aged-care service. The report must be made to both the police and to the Department of Health and Ageing. It must also be made as soon as possible and not later than 24 hours after the allegation or suspicion comes to the attention of the approved provider.

Under the changes approved, providers will also be required to ensure that there are internal processes in place for the reporting, by staff, of all incidents involving alleged sexual or serious physical assault. Staff members will be able to report to the approved provider or the approved provider’s key personnel or other authorised people. The bill also enables staff members to report directly to the police or the department. This may occur where, for example, a staff member does not feel comfortable reporting alleged incidents to the home. Failure to have the necessary systems and protocols in place, and failure to report incidents, will indicate regulatory noncompliance, leading to the possible imposition of sanctions.

The bill underpins these new compulsory reporting arrangements with protection for people who report the abuse. It has been recognised that staff are more likely to report incidents of assault where they do not fear reprisal from their employer or indeed other staff members. The legislation ensures that staff members who make disclosures about assaults have their identity protected and ensures they are not victimised in the workplace. The legislation also protects disclosers from civil and criminal liability in relation to the disclosure. A court also has the authority to order that an employee be reinstated or paid compensation if their employment is terminated because of the fact that they made a protected disclosure. These aspects of the bill are important because they protect staff from disclosure. More importantly, they mean that staff can feel comfortable about reporting—that there are protective measures in place which will encourage them not to fear reprisal when reporting incidents.

A further measure in the bill is the establishment of a new and independent Aged Care Commissioner relacing the existing Commissioner for Complaints. The previous Commissioner for Complaints was limited within the scope of the previous legislation to undertake investigations and to take action. This bill enhances the role of the commissioner and also enhances the manner in which complaints are handled. A new Office of Aged Care Quality and Compliance has been established within the Department of Health and Ageing and it is responsible for investigating any information about possible noncompliance by approved providers. The office will have the power to investigate all complaints and information. It will have the power to determine whether a breach of the approved provider’s responsibilities has occurred. When a breach is identified the office will have the power to require the approved provider to take appropriate action to remedy the breach. More importantly, the office will have the capacity to issue notices of required action to providers who have breached their responsibilities and take compliance action where the provider fails to remedy the issue. The new Aged Care Commissioner will provide an independent mechanism to hear complaints about action taken by the new Office of Aged Care Quality and Compliance in the investigation of complaints and also about the conduct of the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency and its assessors.

The Aged Care Commissioner will also have the capacity to undertake ‘own motion’ reviews. It is proposed that the new arrangements will take effect from 1 April 2007. Prior to that time line, the department will be issuing approved providers with information and guidelines on the new requirements. It is important that the government continues to work with all stakeholders to ensure the best possible measures are put in place to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. The measures introduced in the legislation are in response to concerns and issues raised directly with the minister, and the government has responded—and responded, I believe, in a positive way that will ensure families, residents, nurses, care workers and providers all have a very clear understanding that abuse of the elderly will not be tolerated. It is unacceptable that any form of sexual or serious physical abuse is perpetrated on the elderly. There is protection for the elderly and, because of the new compulsory reporting arrangements, there is protection for the staff. I commend the legislation to the House.