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Wednesday, 20 June 2007
Page: 71

Mr WILKIE (1:39 PM) —I rise today to speak on the Aged Care Amendment (Residential Care) Bill 2007. The purpose of this bill is to amend the Aged Care Act 1997 to introduce a new subsidy-allocating arrangement for residential aged care called the Aged Care Funding Instrument, or the ACFI. The ACFI has been developed in response to recommendations made in the Hogan report of 2004 and is designed to establish a new funding model for the aged-care sector, in addition to reducing the amount of documentation required by the Commonwealth that is generated in aged-care facilities.

Reducing the amount of administrative paperwork for workers in the aged-care sector will come as a welcome relief, as the federal government’s aged-care reforms in 1997 greatly increased the regulatory burden on the industry. In making Commonwealth funding contingent upon the completion of excessive amounts of documentation, the government’s reforms are wasting the valuable time of registered nurses working in aged-care facilities. Of course, the government have been quite aware of the problem but, acting in their usual haste, have taken 10 long years to get around to doing something about it. I am sure that we all agree that nurses’ time is much better spent attending to the needs of their residents and patients instead of filling out forms X, Y and Z.

Providing care for our ageing population represents one of the growing challenges for Australia in the 21st century. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over the next 50 years the proportion of people aged 65 years or more will double from 12 per cent to around 27 per cent, while the proportion of people aged 85 years or more will increase from 1.3 per cent to around five per cent. Ensuring that our ageing community has adequate access to the quality care that they deserve is of vital importance, yet under the Howard government it has simply not happened. In fact, the state of aged-care services in Australia under this government is a disgrace. Around the country, critical shortages in aged-care staff and beds have resulted in an estimated 2,000 older Australians being stranded in hospital wards waiting for a place to become available in a nursing home.

The story of a 90-year-old grandmother, Ann Duim, reported last week in the West Australian newspaper, is an example. Mrs Duim was admitted to Royal Perth Hospital about three weeks ago due to kidney problems. After being admitted, Mrs Duim and her family decided that she would no longer be capable of living in a house alone and that, upon being discharged, she would need to be moved into a nursing home. However, to their great surprise, when Mrs Duim was discharged from hospital earlier this week, they found there was not one nursing home bed available for her. So, at a cost of almost $1,600 a day, Mrs Duim will be forced to wait in Royal Perth Hospital until a nursing home bed finally becomes available for her somewhere in Perth.

Mrs Duim’s predicament is hardly unique. Around the country there are thousands of older Australians waiting in hospital wards for a nursing home bed to become available. Not only is it a disgraceful dereliction of care for our elderly citizens; it is also unduly costing Australian taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The average cost of a hospital bed in Australia is $957 a night. That is roughly nine times the cost of an aged-care bed, so in a year the cost to the health system of leaving our elderly residents waiting in hospital beds is about $700 million. As a recent figure from the WA health department confirms, this government’s failure to adequately fund aged-care services is making it much more difficult for people in urgent need to get access to a hospital bed.

In my home state of Western Australia, last year, on average, 100 elderly residents a week were waiting in hospital beds for an aged-care bed. Not only did this cost Australian taxpayers around $24.9 million; it also used up 38,000 public hospital bed days. In its failure to provide the necessary funding for the aged care of our elderly residents, the government is also compromising the level of care in our public hospitals.

Mr Deputy Speaker Quick, you may think that this appalling example of the outright neglect of aged care by this government would serve as a bit of a wake-up reminder to the Minister for Ageing to get his house in order. But no—according to the minister, there is no problem of aged-care bed shortages. In fact, according to the minister, there is a glut of places available. I would like to see him come to Western Australia and find the glut; there is such a shortage in Western Australia that it is totally unacceptable.

I am sure that this must come as a shock to Mrs Duim as she sits there waiting in Royal Perth Hospital for a nursing home bed to finally become available. In fact, I am sure that the minister’s comments must come as a total surprise to the thousands of elderly Australians around the nation waiting for a nursing home bed. The truth is that in my home state of Western Australia alone there is a total shortfall of 497 nursing home beds. I do not know exactly where the minister is getting his information from, but let us take a look at what the peak bodies representing the aged-care industry have to say about the matter. I quote the Chief Executive of Aged and Community Services Australia:

But we are not happy with the quality of life that we are able to give people because of the continual squeeze on funding and we think governments should do better.

And what of aged-care nurses? What do they think about the current state of aged-care services here in Australia? To put it mildly, they are disgusted. Day in, day out, our nurses witness firsthand the appalling state that aged-care services are now in. According to the secretary of the Queensland Nurses Union, aged-care services require an extra $250 million a year in funding.

The minister can go on about the supposed glut in aged-care places, but I am sure that if the minister put down his copy of the Australian Journal of International Affairs for a minute—we all know that the minister does not want to be in the aged-care portfolio, because he thinks that he is too young for it and really thinks that he should be doing the foreign affairs job—and concentrated on his portfolio and listened to what aged-care workers and industry representatives have being trying to tell him, he would quickly come to realise the disgraceful state that aged-care services are now in. In 1995, there were 92 aged-care beds for every 1,000 people aged 70 years and over. By December last year, that figure had dropped to 86.6 beds for every 1,000 people aged 70 years and over. Considering the fact that we live in an ageing society in which there is nothing short of an army of future retirees marching towards aged-care services, this is a worrying trend indeed. If the government is failing the aged-care sector today, I can only imagine how bad things will be when people aged 65 years and over make up one full quarter of the Australian population in the year 2057.

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend an aged-care forum in my electorate of Swan to listen firsthand to some of the concerns from people working within the aged-care industry. As representatives from the peak council of Australia’s aged-care providers, the Aged Care Industry Council, told me, this government is failing our elderly community. They said that the Australian aged-care industry is in a state of crisis and that the government’s failure to make a serious and long-term commitment to fund aged care adequately was straining the system to the point of collapse. In addition to government funding not keeping pace with the costs of care, they also told me that aged-care providers are being continually asked to do more with less. The previous speaker talked about some of the additional funding that the government has made available to the aged-care sector. But, while the government say that they are putting in more money, the reality is that what they are additionally putting in is a fraction of what is actually needed to do something serious about the actual problems.

Staff are doing the best they possibly can with what limited resources they have, but it simply is not enough to provide the quality of aged care that residents expect and are in fact entitled to. Due to this government’s funding squeeze, the aged-care sector is now in the grips of a nursing crisis.

Mr Fitzgibbon —They have plenty of money for political advertising.

Mr WILKIE —As has just been said by the shadow minister at the table, the reality is that the government are quite happy to spend $200 million on advertising to tell us how wonderful they are. What could happen in the aged-care industry if they put that $200 million into dealing with some of the problems that are being faced? It is high time that they woke up to the fact that there is a growing need. In many aged-care facilities around the nation, there are simply not enough staff to provide an adequate level of care. As a recent audit of aged-care facilities in Queensland found, nearly half failed to meet accreditation standards. In one facility, where there were 93 residents, over 50 of whom were classified as high care, there was not a single registered nurse on night duty. In other facilities, the ratio of care staff to patients is as much as one to 125.

We really need to ask why exactly we face this dire shortage in nursing staff, which so badly compromises the level of care in our aged-care facilities. If you want to get to the heart of the aged-care nursing crisis in this country, you do not really have to look much further than the government’s industrial relations policy. The sad truth of the matter is that under this government’s extreme industrial relations policies, it is precisely people like aged-care nurses who stand to lose the most. As research from the New South Wales Nurses Association has revealed, aged-care workers are much worse off under Australian workplace agreements. Like hundreds of thousands of other workers, many aged-care nurses in Australia have had to accept AWAs that slash their conditions and their pay. Work Choices: I do not think that the government is allowed to use that phrase anymore. Work what? Work Choices, the name that dare not be mentioned in this place by coalition members. For many aged-care nurses, the changes brought in under Work Choices translate into a loss of up to $150 in pay a week. With nurses working in other areas earning up to $20,000 per annum more than those in aged care, it is little wonder why nurses are leaving the industry en masse.

Yet, as a study conducted by the University of Melbourne last year found, the current predicament in which aged-care nurses now find themselves is not only hurting them financially; it is also causing emotional exhaustion. One interview respondent in the study explained:

I have worked in aged care nursing all of my nursing career of 27 years. We claim to care for our residents but everyday we go home feeling emotionally drained and wrecked because we are run off our feet and receive not much support ... we are not providing emotional support for residents or are able to care for them properly because we don’t have the time ... the health care system is chewing up nurses and residents alike.

Coming from someone who has worked in the aged-care industry for 27 years, that is a shocking indictment of the state of aged care in this country. The fact that these unfair and unbalanced laws are detrimentally affecting the ability of the aged-care industry to recruit and retain the staff levels necessary for a quality aged-care system does not seem to worry this arrogant government one little bit. This government is out of touch with the needs of our community. This government is out of touch with the standards of care that Australians expect for their elderly residents, and it has lost sight altogether of the political mainstream.

This government is a government of numbers. And we all know that you cannot translate quality care and compassion into numbers. This government does not care that our elderly residents are forced to sit in hospital wards for weeks at a time waiting for a nursing home bed to finally become available. It does not care that elderly residents of aged-care facilities are exposed to substandard levels of care. And it certainly does not care about a fair and equitable deal for aged-care nurses. No, like all true ideologues, this government cares only for its ideological agenda.

To ensure that elderly Australians like Mrs Duim receive the level of care that they are rightfully entitled to, there needs to be substantial funding planned for the future. The Labor Party supports these amendments to the Aged Care Act, but they will not fix the shortages in aged-care beds and they will do little to improve the quality of aged care. Only a Labor government can rescue the state of aged-care services in Australia and ensure that our elderly residents are treated with the care and respect they deserve. Senior Australians deserve better.