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Wednesday, 1 June 2011
Page: 5583

Mr HAYES (FowlerGovernment Whip) (17:12): I rise to support the Aged Care Amendment Bill 2011 and I commend the minister on bringing this matter to the parliament. A compassionate and responsible aged-care sector is, quite frankly, the hallmark of a modern society. When we look at the costs associated with maintaining that sector I know they sometimes appear horrendous, but one of the things that strikes me these days is that we have seen huge changes, particularly with respect to the standards of accommodation and lifestyle which are associated with aged-care facilities. One of the reasons for that is not just that it is what society expects for its aged community; it is what we expect for our parents. If you personalise that point, it is what we are looking forward to for the care of our mums and dads—and I suppose we might possibly inherit that degree of care from our kids as well—and it shows that there is a reason why we constantly review, upgrade and look forward to progress being made in this sector. We pride ourselves on advancing our own standards of living and lifestyle, and clearly in taking care of our aged these things are no less important. That is the hallmark of a modern society and a modern community, which we are all very happy to support. That is the reality of the position. In my electorate I have—as, no doubt, every member has—a number of aged-care facilities. I take the opportunity to visit them regularly. I would like to mention two that I have been to very recently. One is the Cardinal Stepinac Village and the other is the Indo-Chinese Elderly Hostel. They are fantastic organisations. These organisations cater for a significant ethnic population in my electorate. I have mentioned many times that my electorate is the most multicultural electorate in the country. The work that those two organisations do—Cardinal Stepinac Village with respect to the Croatian community and the Indo-Chinese Elderly Hostel with respect to the Indochinese population—is extraordinary. A lot of the residents have limited English. That has not always been the case. Regrettably, as people grow old and with the onset of dementia, a lot of people return to their original tongue. Hence, these two facilities cater very significantly to the ethnic aspects of the elderly in my electorate.

I would like to refer to Harry Tang and his team. Harry is the President of the Indo-Chinese Elderly Hostel and Veronica Hon is the CEO. They do a wonderful job. As a consequence, the government rewarded them only recently with approval for another 32 aged-care beds as part of the second round approval process. That is significant in my area, particularly around Bonnyrigg where they are located. When I was at Cardinal Stepinac Village the chief executive officer, Matt Smolcic, presented me with a cheque for $40,000 to top up the Premier's Disaster Relief Appeal in Queensland. I thought that what the Croatian community did was pretty good—that they still thought about others.

Getting back to the bill—I know I have digressed—these amendments will strengthen consumer protection around accommodation bonds and will make the processing of complaints easier and probably more flexible as that applies in this sector. In particular, it will amend the Aged Care Act to address the current legislative inadequacies around accommodation bonds in aged-care facilities. It will go a long way to clearing up the confusion and uncertainty—certainly in the minds of some of the industry operators but, more particularly, in the minds of residents and families of residents—about what these bonds can and cannot be used for.

Bear in mind that these bonds are a form of interest-free loans to operators. They are certainly worth a significant amount of money and it is only right that we protect the consumer—often that is the family of the aged-care recipient—make sure that their investment is protected and that the money is used for proper processes. As I understand it, when the bonds were introduced in 1997, they were designed to apply to infrastructure—the bricks and mortar associated with accommodation. However, since then, without prescription provided by the legislation, there has been the opportunity for some operators to use the money, which has effectively been held in trust for recipients, to do other things. This bill is designed to bring it back to what these bonds were originally intended to do. The bill gives greater clarity in that respect. It will ensure that what the bonds in the aged-care sector are for—the money is held in trust—and what the bonds can be used for by the operator is clearly understood. The amendment, which will take effect on 1 October 2011, will make it clear to all operators, residents and, in particular, the families of residents that the bonds are to be used strictly for capital improvement and not, under any circumstances, used for other operational purposes.

The two-year transition period will give the aged-care providers the opportunity to prepare for the changes. In addition, the compliance and enforcement regime will change under these provisions. That will be enhanced around these bonds. It will introduce new offences where misuse of funds has been identified. It will also provide for new and better information-gathering powers for the department to follow up on when there are complaints or allegations of misuse of accommodation bonds.

The second aspect of the bill removes restrictions on the use of income derived from accommodation bonds, which technically gives aged-care providers an unrestricted source of income. The amendments to the Aged Care Act will strengthen and improve the compliance scheme in the aged-care area. It will replace the investigation principles with a new complaints based principle. That will broaden the department's scope for dealing with and following up on concerns.

At present the department is limited to only being able to investigate complaints and establishing whether a breach of the act has occurred. If that is proven to be the case, it would go down the prosecution route and adversarial aspects in terms of compliance with the act. This amendment will make the scheme more flexible. It will introduce the aspect where the department can employ a wide range of mechanisms to assist in resolving complaints, not waiting until there has been an established breach of an act. Those mechanisms include early resolution, conciliation and mediation to work in collaboration with residents, families of residents—the complainants in this case—and the operators of an aged-care facility. At the end of the day, it is not in our interests or the department's interests to establish a prosecutorial regime. We want to show leadership in the standards and the services that are being administered by aged-care providers, and we want their obligations to be understood not only by the providers but also by the residents and the families of the aged. This will lend greater flexibility in trying to resolve issues so that people can undertake their work—that is, to look after the aged.

These recommendations came out of an independent report commissioned by the then Minister for Ageing, Justine Elliot, into how the industry responded to concerns. I acknowledge the former minister's good work and I wish her well in her new portfolio. For what it is worth, I think she applied herself diligently in the ageing portfolio with a view to making a difference for the people in aged care.

The last element of the bill will make some minor operational changes to remove the redundant provisions of the Aged Care Act. These amendments were developed through extensive consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, including aged-care providers, residents and their families, and aged-care advocacy groups. These amendments will get the balance right. That is not to say that once we pass this bill everything will come to a stop, because this is an ongoing reform of aged care. Changes will obviously occur from time to time, but we are trying to make sure that the administration of our aged-care residents reflects the contemporary standards that one would expect in a society such as ours.

We intend to protect residents and their families from unscrupulous operators. There are profits to be made in this area, there is no question about that. It is not simply an altruistic industry. We want to make sure that people do not cut corners that prejudice the lifestyle of residents. As a consequence, continued monitoring of this industry will be needed and that is why a further review will take place two years after these changes are implemented.

As I said, we are setting about to protect the community from unscrupulous operators, but that is not meant to cast aspersions on all of the good operators out there who are the vast majority. However, where operators and their senior staff abuse the rights of others we need to be able to give a level of assurance to the aged and those who effectively fund the accommodation bonds. This government will do all we can to support Australians who are being cared for in aged-care facilities and to support the industry so that they can provide the highest possible standard of care to our aged. As such, the government will continuously monitor the effectiveness of these changes. As I have said, once they have been implemented there will be a subsequent review that will take place in 2014 or 2015.

The elderly certainly have the potential to continue playing a very significant role within our community and that is why we need greater flexibility in aged care. One of the things that drives the development of the aged-care industry is what we expect for our own parents. I support these amendments because they will introduce changes that are needed, but they do need to be continually reviewed. The best thing we could do to provide a greater degree of assurance for those in aged care is establish mechanisms that can quickly and appropriately address complaints instead of simply looking for breaches to prosecute in the courts. I think these amendments will take us a long way down that track. I think it shows that we are committed to making sure that the processes work not only on paper but also in ways that fundamentally deliver good results for the aged-care sector and, more importantly, for those who are cared for in the aged-care sector. I commend the bill to the House.