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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 191

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (12:20 PM) —I am very pleased to have the opportunity this afternoon to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007. Of course, the main purpose of the minor housekeeping amendments in this bill is to correct some unintended consequences of the current drafting and better align the income support and pension arrangements under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act with those of the Social Security Act 1991. The amendments in this bill are supported on the basis that they seek to remedy some unintended consequences of the current drafting of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986, the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 and the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997. The bill presents in great detail amendments to a range of sections of the acts—outlined very well, I might add, by the Parliamentary Library briefing on this bill—on which I do not intend to speak in detail other than to say that it is good to see we can have a correction and have the appropriate parts of this legislation amended, as is obviously required.

This also gives me an opportunity, quite appropriately, to bring to the attention of the chamber a concern I have in relation to services affecting veterans in my electorate. In doing so, I refer particularly to the Veterans Home Care program, the VHC program. I would like to speak briefly about some of the issues that have arisen in my area as a result of some changes that are taking place. I want to note quite openly that I have approached the minister on this matter and have received a very long and detailed response, some four pages, to my correspondence, for which I am grateful. There seems to me to be a need to talk a little about some of the issues at a human level.

My understanding is that the Veterans Home Care program had been operating around the countryside for some time and that the ACT Department of Health unit had successfully tendered for the operation of this program here in the ACT and was quite happily the facilitator of the program. Last year, with the contract period coming to an end in December and the department calling for new tenders, the process changed somewhat and the ACT Department of Health unit made the decision not to tender again, as to do so would have meant that they would be tendering in a competitive process to supply this service to the ACT, South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland. This was a little outside what they saw as their jurisdiction in the way they had operated in the past, so they made a conscious decision not to tender. I understand that at the end of the process an organisation called Aged Care & Housing Group Limited, ACH Group, from South Australia were given the new contract and that from December, when that contract came into place, they were the organisation running this process and a number of organisations in different parts of the four jurisdictions I have mentioned carry out the work on behalf of that organisation.

It is fair to say that, from about January onwards, my electorate office began to get phone calls from people in the community who were expressing concern about some of the changes that this process had led to. An officer from ACH Group with whom we had a conversation indicated that, from their perspective, they were implementing the program as per guidelines only. They admitted that they had run into a number of unhappy veterans during phone assessments. It seems to me that maybe phone assessments are part of the problem. These people are being assessed, as I understand it—and I stand to be corrected if I am wrong—with a telephone interview. We are talking about fairly elderly people. Also, in discussion with us, one of the many providers in this region carrying out this work on behalf of ACH Group said that on-the-ground providers of some care support they were giving were indicating to some of them that they may have a few concerns about some of the changes and the impacts of the changes, but they obviously take direction from ACH Group.

We had a discussion with Legacy. I am sure they will not mind me mentioning this. Legacy is a wonderful community organisation. Like all members in this place, our electorate officers speak to hundreds of organisations doing good work out there. It appears that some of their people may have been approached by some of the recipients of this program in the normal way that they would for support. In the way that they understood it, in relation to the changes, it appears that they were seeing some unnecessary stress, as they would describe it, being put upon some of our veteran widows in particular.

On this side of the chamber, we are not against changes. If there is a good reason to change something then obviously you do. But when you are dealing with vulnerable, frail, elderly people—those living on their own in particular—you have to make absolutely certain that the way you are carrying out those changes has the least possible negative impact that you could wish for.

I will just outline very briefly some of the things that have changed. I will not mention names, even though the minister is aware of whom I am speaking about, because we were very honest with him. An elderly couple in their 80s were getting an hour and a half for shopping and an hour and a half for cleaning once a fortnight, alternating. That has changed and now only one person, instead of two people, has to do both of those jobs. The elderly couple has to pay slightly more. It is still a small cost, but they have to pay slightly more. The belief is that the worst thing that has changed is that the clients cannot go out shopping with the carers anymore. In the past they were taken out shopping; now they are left at home. I understand that it is for insurance reasons. I am happy for all of this to be clarified. From the point of view of my constituents, it was the only opportunity for the gentleman to leave the house for a purposeful reason, maybe other than going to a doctor, and he enjoyed those shopping expeditions. That was to change or it had changed.

Everybody I am talking about is in their late 70s, 80s or 90s. Another lady previously had someone coming every day to shower and dress her, along with three hours a week for shopping and socialising and two hours a fortnight for cleaning. Now she is getting showered only three times a week. She cannot dress herself properly because of her physical problems. She now has only two hours for shopping and is not allowed to go out shopping with a staff member. She understands that, if she wants to go to the bank and nobody can take her, a PIN needs to be made available. I am not sure whether that is completely accurate, but it is a query. She is pretty concerned about the changes that are affecting her.

A gentleman was previously receiving a shower every day and that has been cut back to three showers a week. He has to deal with some physical problems. I think that has been resumed to virtually a daily shower. He cannot get transport assistance from DVA for medical appointments or social outings. He can no longer go shopping with the carer as he could in the past. That was mentioned constantly. He is feeling the lack of availability of transport.

In my office we are trying to see whether we can link up someone like him with a program run by a community service. These folk have stability in their life because they have a program. If anything changes, it is a huge issue for these folk. It is for those reasons that I want to talk about it. When change is needed, yes, let us do it, but can we please be aware of what we are doing and somehow walk these folk through what needs to be done.

There is another person, a woman who is 80-plus years of age, who is really angry about the phone assessment process. She is uncomfortable with it and feels that she is not being seen, in the true sense of an assessment. Her hours have also been dramatically cut. Legacy has been involved. As a result of Legacy’s involvement, I understand that any changes for her have been deferred—maybe to around June—to see whether she can be assisted in sliding across to other services, if that be the case.

There is another woman, who is 85-plus, whose son contacted us. He does what he can to assist his mother, but, again, certain services were cut back from two hours a week to two hours a fortnight and then to nothing. I understand that the department offered an annual spring-clean but then said, ‘We can’t do that unless all the internal windows have been prestripped by you first, and we will not do the second storey.’ These are the sorts of stories that we have been given, and we have fed these stories quite honestly to the minister. I will refer to his reply in a moment. There is also another darling who is 92. She had three hours a week for washing and basic cleaning cut back to 1½ hours. She is not at all very mobile, and, again, Legacy is involved with her. As I said, I am attempting to be very honest and generous about this because there may be good reasons for certain changes taking place.

In the minister’s letter, he said to me that the VHC program assists Australia’s veterans, war widows and widowers with low-care needs to remain at home for longer—and we applaud that—and that it provides domestic assistance; respite care, in-home and residential; personal care; and safety related home and garden maintenance. The in-home respite is only available to people with a carer—I understand that—but the domestic assistance and the personal care is the stuff of import to these people. I do not wish to go through all the detail in the minister’s letter. Suffice to say that the department has indicated that maybe some of these people were incorrectly assessed or incorrectly serviced in the previous tendering contracts. I do not know whether that is true, because I think it is all being looked at.

The minister also said that where they believe there has been or where there is now an inappropriate supply of service, some folk may need to be referred to other programs—HACC programs or other community programs. That is not really an issue for me, I guess. At the end of the day, I want these people to get the services they need in the most untraumatic, friendly and sensitive way possible. If a reassessment or reassignment is needed for the people in this age group, I think it would be better if it was not done by phone. It is a good thing to walk into their home and actually see their surroundings, understand their needs and their physicality, or otherwise, and make an assessment on that basis.

Be that as it may, should there be the decision at the end of the day that people like this have to be reassessed and reassigned to another service, can it please be done with sensitivity so that it does not result in the trauma that I believe may be occurring with some of these people. It is fair to say that some of that trauma could be attributed to their age, their frailty and their situation in life. For whatever reason, I think this needs a little bit of care. I am not blaming the minister but, somehow down the line, we need to find a way to handle this. I am not happy when I get a phone call from a 92-year-old woman who is maintaining herself remarkably well in her own home, considering her age—and I think she is the one I am referring to; one of them has a very severe sight impairment—and find out that the service that she has been getting, which was only three hours a week, has been cut back to 1½ hours. One wonders whether a cutback of that nature is really required. Three hours a week is not a lot of time, does not cost a lot of money and does not involve a lot of care, but she was happy with it.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity during this debate to bring the Main Committee’s attention to the changes in the VHC program and to appeal to the minister and to his folk that they do all they can—

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek to intervene.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—Is the member for Canberra willing to give way?

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS —Yes, certainly.

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —I wonder whether, for the purpose of what you have been discussing, the vet’s care system is using an aged care assessment team to assess the clients?

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS —I am happy to try to answer that. Somewhere in the minister’s letter I think he says that part of the process for these people—and I stand to be corrected if I have this wrong—would be that they would need to go through an ACAT assessment to get another form of service—for instance, a CAHP, a care at home package. So if this process has decided that they are no longer eligible, for whatever reason, the minister is suggesting in part of this response that they need to go through an ACAT assessment for that purpose—that is, not to stay where they are but to go into an entirely different package, which would be a care at home package through the aged-care system.

I will draw my remarks to a conclusion there. I thank the member for her intervention. As I said, I am not really complaining so much as bringing to the attention of people the fact that we need to be so sensitive and so careful when we are dealing with people in this category. I know for all intents and purposes we all share that view, but occasionally we need to have a reminder that, whatever we need to do to look after these folk, we should do. In the end, I hope that these people have the service that they were getting reinstated or that they can slide across as seamlessly as possible—and with all the help they need—into what is considered to be a more appropriate service, be that as it may. I thank the chamber for its attention.