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Wednesday, 15 May 2013
Page: 3335


Dr STONE (Murray) (18:52): I wish to speak to this collection of bills, which are part of the cognate debate for the Aged Care (Living Longer Living Better) Bill 2013. This legislation provides the framework for Labor's so-called Living Longer Living Better package. No area of consideration can be more important than this in our national parliament. There are four key areas covered by these bills: changes related to residential care, changes to establish a new type of care that is predominately expected to be in the person's home, changes relating to governance and administration, and changes to establish the Aged Care Pricing Commissioner.

Obviously respectful and skilled and properly resourced care for the aged is a hallmark of any civil society. The needs of the ageing population is one of the key social issues now facing our nation. Currently more than one million older Australians receive aged care with Commonwealth support. We know that a girl born today is probably going to live to 100 and we have not yet found cures for some serious conditions of older age like dementia and Alzheimer's disease. People with these conditions are in great need of special respect and support in suitable places.

Unfortunately, the aged-care sector in Australia is in crisis. I have a number of excellent aged-care residences across the electorate of Murray, a rural and regional area. Almost all of my aged-care facilities, which offer excellent care, have staff—almost universally women—who are dedicated and committed. The vast majority of the facilities are not-for-profit agencies run by voluntary boards. All of them talk to me about the extreme financial difficulties they currently face, but will face even more if this package goes through without proper resourcing and in the condition that it is in as described by the current bill.

Australia can be justifiably proud of the aged care provided for the most frail in their final years. We do have some of the best standards of aged care in the world. Unfortunately, the main issues for many facilities across Australia are such that rather than compromise the value of their service—indeed, they cannot continue if they lose their registration—a lot of these excellent facilities will be forced to close. The Commonwealth own-purpose outlays place viability at risk because of the ongoing costs which exceed the Commonwealth own-purpose outlays index. Costs are increasing by three to four per cent while the aged-care funding instrument subsidy rates have only increased by 1.45 per cent, so we have to be realistic. Recurrent funding has to be far more relevant to the index. The $1.6 billion cut from the aged-care funding instrument places enormous strain on this sector. The costs of their energy, the costs of the medical support for their residents, their wages bills—everything that they do—is going up and yet, particularly in rural and regional residences, there is no alternative for them that will give them better financial stability.

According to Kaye Bernhardt, the CEO at Barwo Homestead, an aged-care residence in Nathalia, a fantastic place, the changes to the aged-care funding instrument are already cutting in and will make it very difficult for them to survive unless they have some financial relief quite soon. This is typical of my region's aged-care facilities. Barwo Homestead has fewer than 50 beds; it is in the tiny town of Nathalia, nestled against the Murray River; the nearest other facility is about half an hour to three-quarters of an hour's drive away. If a facility in my electorate had to close, then the aged partners of the people in care would have great difficulty in regularly visiting their loved ones. The families would be isolated from those people who are elderly and in their most frail state, when they are often more in need of daily visits.

The refundable accommodation deposit and daily accommodation payment guidelines are still very obscure. We need to know more about what is actually intended. Too much of the detail of these bills is still being left for a later resolution. That is not good enough.

Another problem is that rural housing is generally much lower in value than that of metropolitan housing. This means that the higher bonds are just not going to eventuate in most country communities. They are not available to the aged-care facilities in my small country towns. Most of the residents are aged pensioners or veterans' affairs pensioners: they simply do not have the hundreds of thousands of dollars to put into the bonds. As well, with interest rates low, the returns from the bond investments are also quite constrained. This creates the issue of not having sufficient capital funding sources. Unless the funding matches the true cost of quality care, rural facilities will go to the wall. They do need to have additional supplementary funding acknowledging their economies of scale and the fact that there are no alternatives for ageing families who live well beyond metropolitan Australia.

As I said, the problem is that the closure of an aged-care facility is a catastrophe for a small town. It is not a case of someone being able to simply go around the corner to an alternative facility that is in better financial shape. Our aged-care facilities are overwhelmingly run by not-for-profit organisations with voluntary boards in the electorate of Murray, and they supplement their income right now through continual fundraising, appeals and community activities. That has helped them survive in the past, but as many of you know in this chamber the SPC Ardmona crash that occurred several weeks ago, when 114 of my growers were told they would have no income or only half of their income next year, means that the fundraising capacity in my communities is now significantly diminished.

Many of my aged-care facilities depend on opportunity shops; they depend on the donations and the volunteers who go through the doors of those op shops on weekends. The Euroa aged-care facility, an excellent place, was recently able to repaint and redecorate all of their facility with a $250,000 donation from the town's volunteer-run op shop. It is extraordinary that in modern Australia, in the 21st century, we have small communities depending on op shops in order to do basic upgrading of their facilities, to make them of a reasonable and decent standard, and yet that is what the Euroa community had to do. There was not a cent of government funding in the refurbishment of their facility. They depended on, and were so grateful for, the donation of $250,000 from the op shop. Quite frankly, this is not good enough.

It is also important for me to note that my for-profit homes in the electorate—they are small in number—are equally well run and equally caring in the staff's commitment to their residents. They too face real problems with ongoing funding, particularly if this Labor government continues on its current trajectory. You can imagine that the economies of scale are such that—

Debate interrupted.