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Wednesday, 1 June 2011
Page: 5591

WYATT ROY (Longman) (17:55): I rise to speak to the Aged Care Amendment Bill 2011. The bill introduces a number of amendments that aim to strengthen consumer protection for accommodation bonds paid to aged-care service providers and aims to provide an increased focus on consumer complaint resolution and on the achievement of outcomes for complaints rather than just investigation.

The coalition will not be opposing this bill, which takes steps to protect some of the most vulnerable members of our community. However, there is so much more that needs to be done, encompassed within a framework of reform of the aged-care sector—reform that should see a vibrant aged-care sector that provides for the holistic needs of older Australians and a sector that is valued for the work that it does.

The ageing of Australia's population is undoubtedly one of the nation's biggest social challenges. Over the last two decades, the median age of the population has increased by 4.8 years, whilst over the same period the number of children aged between 0 and 14 decreased by three per cent. The first cohort of baby boomers will leave the workforce this year, but the number of young people joining it will decline. In 2007 there were seven people working to support every person over the age of 67. By 2047, this figure is expected to almost halve to 3.2 people supporting every Australian over the age of 67. Australians are expected to live longer, further increasing the pressure on the aged-care sector. More and more people are expected to live well into their 80s. By 2047, there is expected to be an increase from 1.7 per cent to 5.6 per cent of over-85-year-olds requiring the services of our aged-care sector.

There is evidence that the aged-care sector is already struggling to provide the excellent levels of care that we want for our older Australians, who have contributed so much to our community. This Labor government has delayed any meaningful reform of the sector by commissioning report after report, whose conclusions only point in one direction: a crisis in the sector. Forty per cent of aged-care facilities are operating in the red. There are a record number of provider liquidations and undersubscription to aged-care places.

In the context of the current legislation at issue, accommodation bonds payable were originally intended for capital funding. The legislation as it stands provides for the use of accommodation bonds paid for by someone going into care for the purpose of providing aged care for recipients. However, there are ambiguities around what this actually means, so accommodation bonds have been used for a wide variety of purposes, including meeting operational costs. There is no clarity around the ability of service providers to invest the money in, for example, long-term bank accounts or, alternatively, to use the money to provide loans. There is currently no data that reveals the true extent of the problem. However, anecdotal evidence from discussions with service providers indicates that bonds are being utilised for operational purposes.

At the moment there are restrictions on how an approved aged-care provider can use income derived from an accommodation bond. However, the restrictions that currently apply do not reflect the comparative risk and create a situation whereby the administrative burden of the regulations may impact on cashflow, thereby increasing the possibility that bonds may be used for operational expenses. The financial viability of the aged-care sector is a major issue, an issue that will only gain greater prominence in Australia. In its 2011-12 budget submission, the Aged Care Industry Council stated that a snapshot of the industry at the start of 2011 indicates a sector that is unsustainable. Hours of service are decreasing, hours of care provided under Community Aged Care Packages are decreasing, new residential care beds are not being built, many services are not operating at a profit and liquidations have increased.

At a time when Australia is likely to see increasing demand for aged care, the sector is struggling. In 2008-09, 2,000 beds were cut in the aged-care approvals round, and industry is rejecting government funded beds. The last two aged-care rounds were undersubscribed, as opposed to the situation under the coalition government, where aged-care places were prized. Providers are handing back licences, and beds are being left empty, with older Australians having to wait longer for a bed and travel greater distances. This is particularly the case in rural Australia.

In my electorate, this is an issue for the community. I have had to deal with several cases of older constituents waiting for months in hospital beds because there is no other place for them to go. This is not representative of a system that recognises the holistic needs of individuals. If people from Bribie Island in my electorate are in hospital in Brisbane, their partners have to commute for up to three hours a day to visit them. This has the obvious effect of causing social dislocation and isolation. It also has the effect of placing extra pressure on an already overcrowded public hospital system. This situation is causing distress and anxiety in my community.

This legislation is designed to increase regulations on the amount of accommodation bond principal; however, it will reduce the regulations on income derived from the bond, retention amounts and accommodation charges. The regulation would then better reflect the risk associated with the principal. This would permit improved oversight of the bond, which is effectively an interest-free loan made by a resident, and other sources of income derived from the approved provider. Permitted uses for the accommodation bond would be limited to the original policy intent of providing funding for increased investment in capital works, in certain products and to pay debt related to the provision of aged care. From talking to local aged-care providers, it would seem that it is the provision of capital-intensive mortar and bricks that provides the greatest financial hurdle for the sector. The Department of Health and Ageing will have increased information-gathering powers to ensure that service providers that might be at risk are able to repay accommodation bonds.

Because the sector is struggling and aged-care providers have had to go into liquidation, the Accommodation Bond Guarantee Scheme has been utilised to the tune of $24.5 million, meaning around 150 accommodation bonds. This legislation proposes that there be new penalties introduced for approved providers that use bonds for non-permitted purposes that might trigger the guarantee scheme. While this is a step forward in safeguarding the contributions of older Australians and making the sector more financially viable, there is more that needs to be done.

Unfortunately, as in many other areas of government policy, the Labor government's record is littered with broken promises. For example, the attraction and retention of nurses in the aged-care sector is becoming increasingly difficult. However, despite promises of a fix, Labor recruitment policies have failed. The Bringing Nurses Back into the Workforce Program was abolished, with the program delivering only 139 nurses out of a promised 1,000 by February 2010. In 2009-10, only 8,200 out of 13,100 training places for aged-care workers had been delivered. Of the 2,000 transition places promised, only 698 had become operational by April 2010.

The bill is also designed to improve complaints handling by changing the focus to resolution of complaints rather than just their investigation. It is intended that the handling of aged-care complaints will be improved, with an increased focus on the achievement of outcomes for care recipients, their families and other representatives. A range of approaches such as mediation, conciliation and investigation will be employed by the Department of Health and Ageing to resolve complaints cooperatively with care recipients and providers of care. This should go some way to reassuring care recipients and their families that issues relating to their care will be dealt with rather than just investigated, and as such the coalition welcomes the change.

The coalition is committed to providing the highest possible standards of aged care. We believe that this is one way of giving back to those who have contributed so much to this country in the past and continue to contribute in a number of ways. My electorate is full of senior people who continue to make a full and meaningful contribution to the community. Some of them have the time and are able to volunteer in various ways that provide invaluable support for the community. However, there are those that are more vulnerable and require different levels of care. These people and their families should expect and receive the very highest possible standards of care. Whilst this bill is a step in the right direction, the whole aged-care sector is in need of serious attention, not just tinkering around the edges.

The Labor government has failed the aged-care sector and with it many of our most vulnerable senior Australians. The coalition, on the other hand, remains committed to the provision of $935 million over a four-year period in order to provide for the increasing challenges the aged-care sector will face as there is increasing demand for its services from an ageing population. Central to the coalition policy is the development of an aged-care provider agreement with the aged-care sector that will be designed to reduce red tape and paperwork so that medical professionals can actually get on with the job of providing care rather than jumping through bureaucratic hoops. The agreement would provide more certainty for older Australians and those involved in their care.

For a start within this coalition policy the agreement would see the provision of $50 million over four years for professional aged-care programs and services. There would be payments of $30,000 for 3,000 aged-care places as part of the implementation of the aged-care bed incentive program. Importantly, the coalition would work cooperatively with the aged-care sector in order to identify areas of greatest need in order to establish a framework for the allocation of the places. As with many other areas in health, the coalition believes that it is the people on the ground and in the communities, not bureaucrats in Canberra, who are best placed to know and make decisions about what is needed. Importantly for my community, the coalition has promised to establish a convalescent care program, with funding of $300 million over four years to assist up to 20,000 Australians waiting in hospital to return home. As I mentioned before, this is an issue that has been raised with me on many occasions by the senior members of my community who are waiting for months to return home and are impeded from doing so because there is no-one able to care for them. The convalescent care program would provide up to 21 days in a residential aged-care facility, relieving pressure on our hospitals and adding to aged-care providers' funds. Uncertainty is plaguing the aged-care sector and the coalition's plans for an aged-care provider agreement would provide much-needed certainty for aged-care providers with the added benefit of increasing security of employment in the aged care workforce.

Labor has neglected the needs of older Australians and the aged-care sector is in urgent need of reform to meet the coming challenges of Australia's ageing population. Older Australians have every right to feel they are going to be well cared for in their twilight years and the coalition is committed to meeting care needs now and into the future. This legislation is a step forward; however, broader reform of the aged-care sector is needed. The coalition's sustainable plan would see the needs of our seniors met and would provide a framework for the real reform the sector so urgently needs in constructive partnership with them.