Federal Government pledges $132M to aged care COVID response – national review of outbreaks underway

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The Government just scraped in on the 1 December deadline set by the Commissioners for a response, tabling a 15-page paper to the Royal Commission’s special COVID-19 report in Parliament on Monday night – and closer inspection reveals a few interesting details.

You can read the full Government response here.

As we reported here, the Royal Commission’s report released on 1 October outlined six recommendations including funding for visitors, a national aged care plan and improved infection control procedures which the Government agreed to take up or said it was already progressing on.

Extra funding for allied health and mental health

The new package – which takes in funding already announced by the Government – includes:

  • $35.5 million to provide access to Medicare subsidised individual psychological services under the Better Access to Psychiatrists, Psychologists and General Practitioners through the MBS (Better Access) initiative until 30 June 2022 (up to 20 sessions, double the current number) and to evaluate better access;
  • $12.1 million for additional individual allied health sessions under Medicare chronic disease management plans;
  • $15.7 million for allied health group services for residents living in facilities affected by COVID-19 outbreaks;
  • $57.8 million to fund jurisdictions to support Infection Prevention and Control training within facilities and;
  • Another $11.1 million toward the Serious Incident Response Scheme (SIRS) due to launch in 2021, taking its total funding to $67.2 million.

In total, the Government says its response to the pandemic in aged care has topped $1.7 billion.

Government maintains it already had national aged care COVID plan

It is worth noting the Government maintains in its response that it has already delivered a COVID response plan for the aged care sector.

The Counsel Assisting had heavily criticised the lack of a national aged care plan for COVID during the Royal Commission’s hearings on the outbreaks in aged care – a claim that the Department of Health and Aged Care Minister, Senator Richard Colbeck, both refuted.

“As our knowledge about the virus has grown, and circumstances have changed, we have continued to update and refine our planning documents, including the CDNA’s National Guidelines for the prevention, control and public health management of COVID-19 outbreaks in residential care facilities in Australia. The development of the national aged care plan for COVID-19 as recommended by the Royal Commission represents the seventh stage of this plan,” they state.

The Government’s response refers to the 33-page Updated National COVID-19 Aged Care Plan (7th Edition) which was endorsed by the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee (AHPPC) and tabled at National Cabinet two weeks ago on 13 November which outlines the guidance for aged care providers during outbreaks and the roles and responsibilities of the various agencies.

The AHPPC’s Aged Care Advisory Group has also been made permanent – another recommendation from the Royal Commission report.

National review of aged care outbreaks to report by end of March

The Government says it will also go one step further, with a national review of all outbreaks commissioned to look at what services and Government agencies could have done to prevent aged care outbreaks expected to be completed by the end of March 2021.

The Government has already commissioned four independent reviews of key outbreaks – Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Newmarch House in Sydney, both released in August, and St. Basil’s Home for the Aged and Heritage Care Epping Gardens in Melbourne, which were both due on Monday but have yet to be released.

The national review is anticipated to identify lessons learnt from the management of outbreaks as well as “critical success factors”.

“This review is not service specific, but rather seeks to draw general conclusions from provider experiences including the support provided by relevant government agencies which may have mitigated the risk of broader outbreaks in residential aged care facilities,” the response states.

Unions say response won’t deliver on staffing, pay or transparency

But are these measures enough? Both the unions and the Opposition say no, attacking the response yesterday.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) gathered some aged care workers from Victoria, NSW and Queensland in Canberra yesterday to call out the Government, saying the response does not go far enough to address staffing, pay and transparency in aged care.

“We need minimum staffing levels with a mandated mix of skills on every shift in every workplace. This announcement takes us no closer to this goal,” ACTU President Michele O’Neil said.

“Mandated training requirements are urgently needed to ensure that workers and residents are safe. This announcement will do nothing to improve training.”

Labor says measures are “too little, too late”

Labor’s Shadow Minister for Ageing and Seniors, Julie Collins was also critical of the response, labelling it “too little, too late”.

“By its own admission, the Morrison Government confirmed it has not fully implemented key recommendations on improving infection control in aged care. This is completely unacceptable given the huge risks,” she said.

“There is also no clear evidence that staffing has improved to allow for better visitation in aged care homes.”

It is clear that the measures are only intended to address the sector’s COVID response, not the wider issues facing the aged care system.

It would seem all sides will have to wait for the Royal Commission’s findings in February for real reform.