Aged Care Advisory Council a litmus test for Government commitment to real reform

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By LASA CEO Sean Rooney

The final report of Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety was a clarion call to the nation that the aged care system is in dire need of transformation. It found that Australia’s aged care system is ‘unacceptable and unsustainable’, something many older Australians and aged care workers and services already knew.

The Royal Commissioners recommended fundamental and far-reaching changes in order to realise a system that is resourced and enabled to meet the needs of older Australians, now and into the future.

At the time, representatives of older Australians and providers of age services welcomed the report and its recommendations, seeing this as the ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to fix a broken system.

The Government responded in May with an ambitious aged care reform program and timetable. This response offered hope to older Australians and service providers alike. Hope that older Australians would receive the care and services they need and deserve. Hope that aged care workers and services would be properly resourced and supported to meet these needs. Hope, that unlike past attempts at reform, Government would work collaboratively with all people receiving care and all people delivering care so that we can realise a better aged care system.

Sadly, six months on, our hope has been fading as serious concerns emerge that older Australians are in danger of being let down – yet again. 

The Royal Commission uncovered much that is wrong with the system.  Some providers were rightfully singled out for inexcusable failures in care. There is no room in our sector for individuals or services that repeatedly demonstrate they are unable or unwilling to meet quality standards and community expectations.

It also found that successive Governments have failed us all by placing the needs of Government ahead of those of vulnerable older Australians – by denying the aged care system the resources needed to effectively meet the needs of the growing numbers of older Australians. The Royal Commission cited 20 previous inquiries and investigations over the past two decades that were not effectively acted upon.

In acknowledging these past failures, the Royal Commissioners agreed that key to realising transformational change this time is having an inclusive and accountable approach to reform. To this end, a key recommendation was for the establishment of an Aged Care Advisory Council responsible for reform design and delivery.     

The Government accepted this recommendation announcing in May it would establish the Council in July 2021. Five months later than the Government’s stated plan, the Council was finally announced last week (24 November). The Council has been welcomed by the sector and has some catching up to do, as recent changes to the aged care system have been rushed through without adequate consultation with older Australians and the people and organisations that care for them.

The Government is on notice that the opportunity for real reform is in danger of being squandered. The risk is history repeating itself, in that ‘reform’ is carried out by bureaucrats in a vacuum, without the input of the people who actually rely on aged care services and who provide aged care services. That is, the people who know what works and what doesn’t. How the Council operates will be a litmus test for the Government and will determine the success (or not) of the reforms.

So, the sector has very high expectations for the new Council. This must be a turning point in the reform journey if we are to avoid the failures of the past.

The Council must adopt inclusive, participatory processes where all key stakeholders play an active role in the design of changes that impact them. The Council must agree and share a detailed plan for reform, transparently report progress against the plan and ensure consumers and providers are adequately resourced and enabled to implement all planned changes. Sadly, these are all elements that have been missing in previous reform efforts.

There is too much at stake for us not to get this right. As the Royal Commissioners warned in their Final Report:

“The critical issue for this report is how we as a nation are to avoid a repetition of the tragedy of the past.”