THE interim report from the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety - entitled Neglect - has rightly labelled our aged care system as "a sad and shocking system that diminishes Australia as a nation". This aligns with the shocking stories of neglect and abuse shared by the many families I see in my practice. There are many dedicated aged care providers and workers but they work in an unkind and uncaring system that fails older Australians who deserve better.
The report does not make recommendations but says that immediate action should be taken on chemical restraint use, home care packages for those on waiting lists and getting young people with disabilities out of aged care. The commission will continue its important work but its final report will not be handed down for at least another year. The frail aged can't wait that long for action. Last year 16,000 died while waiting for their approved home care package and another 120,000 are on waiting lists.
Increased government funding will help but it should be available in conjunction with new legislation and effective regulation. We need to address staffing issues and the lack of availability of data on key performance indicators as to quality.
Deficiencies in the Aged Care Act 1997 is a key cause of the systemic problems in aged care. Weighted in favour of providers, it allows profits to prevail over quality of care.
The legislation has little to say about regulation. The new regulatory body, the Aged Care Quality & Safety Commission, lacks independence.
The commission has reported service shortfalls, serious substandard and unsafe care and an "underpaid, undervalued and insufficiently trained" staffing. Many residential aged care facilities operate with dangerously low staff numbers. A commission background paper says for residents to receive five star care, total care staffing levels must increase by almost 50 per cent. The Act only requires that "sufficient" staff are on hand to provide necessary care.
Research shows mandating minimum staffing levels is critical to effective care. More than that, the quality of care is important with staffing tailored to resident need.
The government says the report has put it and the aged care industry on notice. But there's been plenty of notice - 30 inquiries in 20 years since aged care was deregulated. Both Labor and Coalition governments during that 20-year period have failed to act. We need to take action - beyond the commission's initial suggestions - now.
Ms Henry is the principal of Catherine Henry Lawyers and the Australian Lawyers Alliance spokesperson on aged care and elder law.
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