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Thursday, 10 June 1999
Page: 6663


Mrs BRONWYN BISHOP (Aged Care) (10:18 AM) —I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

The commencement of the Aged Care Act on 1 October 1997 saw the implementation of legislation that guarantees an aged care system that maintains the comfort and dignity of older Australians in a way that is viable and sustainable and quite new.

I am pleased to introduce today the Aged Care Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 1999, which will introduce further resident protections, implement an election commitment and improve administration of the act.

The bill is further proof of the government's commitment to achieving excellence in care for older Australians in residential care. This commitment has been demonstrated by the increased outlays on residential care under this government, by the growth in care places and by the recognition of the complex care needs of residents of aged care facilities. The bill further extends the work already done by the government to improve the residential aged care system in Australia.

The government remains committed to bringing about real improvement to high level care, that is, nursing homes, too many of which were simply not in a condition to provide a safe, comfortable and dignified home for older Australians when we were elected to government.

The accommodation charge takes account of the special circumstances of high level, or nursing home level, residents and maintains the principle of people making a contribution to improving the quality of their accommodation where they can afford to do so. This is a small contribution to the large subsidies that are paid to ensure this care is given. Protections exist for those residents who are unable to contribute in this way.

There are no changes to the quantum or the nature of the accommodation charges, which have been operating since 6 November 1997 through subordinate legislation. This bill formalises those measures in principal legislation to ensure a range of resident protection measures for accommodation charges.

The bill also ensures that where a high level, that is, a nursing home level, resident chooses to rent out a former family home to pay for the accommodation charge, the rental income earned does not affect their pension entitlements. This means that a resident can retain the full pension while earning rental income. This bill amends the Social Security Act and the Veterans' Entitlements Act to exclude this rental income and the value of the property from the pension income and assets test.

The new measures will also maintain, but through principal legislation, flexibility and choice for older Australians who move between different types of residential care. Where residents have previously paid a bond in a hostel, and would prefer to roll over this bond when they move to a nursing home instead of paying an accommodation charge, they will continue to have the option of agreeing with the provider to roll over that bond.

Concessional residents, or those who qualify under the hardship provisions, will not be required to pay the accommodation charge. In addition, this bill widens the definition of concessional resident, to enable more older Australians to be classed as concessional residents and to ensure that they will not be asked to pay an accommodation bond or charge.

The bill extends many of the consumer protections that currently apply to accommo dation bonds to also cover accommodation charges, and requires aged care providers to meet a range of responsibilities in relation to the charge.

This bill also implements the government's 1999 budget commitment to protect those older Australians who were in a nursing home when the Aged Care Act 1997 was introduced from paying an accommodation charge if they were later to move to another nursing home. Those nursing home residents who were in care at that time and who have moved or will move to another home will now be exempted from paying the accommodation charge.

People who were residents of a nursing home when the Aged Care Act 1997 was introduced and who have moved and paid a charge in another home will be refunded for the accommodation charges they have already paid. These refunds will not affect their pension entitlements. Providers will be reimbursed for the amount lost in refunded accommodation charges.

The government also remains committed to those who devote themselves to caring for older people in their own homes. The bill reduces from five years to two years the period during which a resident's home must have been occupied by a carer in order for the resident to qualify as a concessional or assisted resident. This change will make it easier for residents to qualify, and attract a higher level of government subsidy. It will also mean that carers will be able to remain in the family home—further recognising the vital role that carers play.

The bill also addresses anomalies in the Aged Care Act 1997 in relation to the revocation of approved provider status and the imposition of sanctions for breaches of provider responsibilities under the previous legislation. Provisions will be introduced which will enable the Commonwealth to take strong and decisive action against those providers, for example, who have been convicted of serious crimes, such as the abuse of residents or fraud. The government is committed to ensuring that only those providers who meet their responsibilities will be able to provide care to the most frail and vulnerable in our society.

It has also come to the attention of the government that the responsibility of providers in relation to the kinds of fees intending residents can be asked to pay needs to be clarified. The bill makes it very clear that intending residents cannot be asked to pay fees until after they have agreed to accept a place, following notification of a place being available.

The bill makes provision for a number of other important changes to ensure better protection for both residents and providers. Concessional resident status is extended to cover residents whose home is occupied by dependent grandchildren. The bill allows for the extension of time limits for entering an agreement for those residents who wish to appoint a guardian to handle their affairs. The bill also provides for extensions to approvals in principle for additional recurrent funding, where providers need to additional time to improve their facilities.

These issues are the result of the government listening to and responding to these issues. We have acted in a sensitive way to keep the benefits of the aged care reforms flowing to residents, now and in the future.

The amendments clarify and improve the current arrangements set out in the Aged Care Act 1997—the legislation that has seen the most comprehensive and significant reform to the provision of aged care services in Australia over the last decade. This legislation, by encouraging innovation, flexibility and creativity in service delivery and planning, will underpin the provision of appropriate, responsive and quality aged care into the next century. I commend the bill to the House and I present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Swan) adjourned.