Experts call for 'rights-based' aged care system

Aged care experts have expressed concern that the Morrison government is looking to water down the first recommendation of the aged care royal commission.

When the final report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety was delivered in October 2020, it painted a bleak picture of a sector in crisis.

There was hope the federal government would take on the commission’s recommendations and improve the lives of thousands of older Australians living in residential aged care or needing at-home assistance.

But leading aged care experts are worried the government is looking to weaken the very first recommendation on the list – that our aged care system needs a new act based on a ‘universal right to high quality, safe and timely support and care’.

“The government has committed to a new aged care act but the wording of its commitment is for a values-based system,” says Craig Gear, chief executive of the Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN)

Read: Most aged care homes would fail minimum staffing standards

“This is not what older people tell us they want, nor what the two commissioners said in their final report. They were in lock-step for a rights-based approach to be taken in the new act.

“This was the very first recommendation in their report because it will be the bedrock of a new aged care system built around human rights for older people. It is the foundation stone of every other reform.”

An aged care system based on legally enforceable rights to specific levels of care and support would give older Australians a way to ensure they are treated with dignity.

Currently, Australia has a Charter of Aged Care Rights, but those rights are not legally enforceable. Enshrining them in law would be a step toward giving older Australians a legal method of ensuring a certain level of care and support.

It has been suggested that the reason for the government’s reluctance may be that creating a legally enforceable right to care could leave taxpayers open to uncapped bills for an ageing population.

Read: Website tracking aged care issues has 2000 reports already

It’s hard to hear that argument, especially on the day a coronial inquiry begins into the COVID-19 outbreak at St Basil’s Home for the Aged in Melbourne in 2020. That outbreak claimed the lives of 45 residents and, sadly, five residents lost their lives due to neglect in the same period.

The inquiry is looking at how prepared the staff and management at St Basil’s were for a COVID outbreak; what their response was when it hit; the timeliness and accuracy of information provided to staff, residents and family, and whether the state and federal governments coordinated their response to the outbreak appropriately.

In 2012, a Victorian coroner recommended all aged care homes in the state employ a designated infection control manager. As this wasn’t legally enforceable, not much changed in regard to aged care infection controls.

An aged care system based on legally enforceable rights could potentially have stopped the outbreak from being as severe as it was.

Read: Australia set for dire aged care shortage in the next decade

“In my opinion, the horror story that unfolded at St Basil’s and elsewhere in aged care homes in Victoria could have been prevented if the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, and aged care minister, Richard Colbeck, had acted on those former coroner recommendations,” says aged care researcher Dr Sarah Russell.

“If governments would actually act on the 21 inquiries and reports we have had into the sector, we wouldn’t be in this mess. My concern is after this most recent heartache, recommendations still won’t be acted upon.”

A coalition of 25 aged care bodies, including OPAN, Council on the Ageing, Dementia Australia, National Seniors, Carers Australia and the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Association, are pressuring the government to honour the first recommendation of the aged care royal commission to usher in a new era of care for older Australians.

The Australian reports that the Opposition will announce its aged care policy well before the next federal election after consulting with aged care workers, unions, providers, experts and older Australians.

Labor’s health and ageing spokesman Mark Butler said: “Older Australians … should rightly expect that the federal government would support them in their frailer years with an aged care system based on a universal right to high quality, safe and timely support and care.”

Do you believe we all have a right to quality aged care? Should our aged care system be based on those rights? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Written by Brad Lockyer



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