VMCH’s Sonya Smart: the future of aged care is “very specialised” – unviable services to close

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How do you turn a $1 million loss into a new strategic direction for your business?

Sonya is well-informed to answer this question.

VMCH – formerly Villa Maria Catholic Homes – is one of Victoria’s largest Not For Profits, with 12 aged care homes, 14 retirement villages plus 450 affordable housing, home care services, disability accommodation and services, carer supports and early learning and therapy and a specialist school supporting over 9,000 people across the state.

Sonya took the reins in March 2017, following six years as the CEO of Perth’s Catholic Homes Incorporated.

At the time, VMCH had $100 million of developments in the pipeline with aged care, retirement villages and community services all in the mix.

To continue VMCH’s commitment to its developments to support people VMCH has undertaken many scenarios for cash flow and operations and is set to continue to deliver its developments.

So, what has been the hit to their business – and how is VMCH taking their business forward into the future?

$1 million hit from occupancy falls and increased staffing costs

Sonya estimates the pandemic has so far cost VMCH almost $1 million in income because of a fall in occupancy from an average of 97-98% to 93%, increased costs from staffing to support residents and manage visitation, and extra cleaning and PPE purchases.

“We’ve been watching the cost of PPE go up every month and we don’t expect it to stop,” she said.

Sonya says they are now focusing on rebuilding their occupancy, but they are looking at closing some of their community-based services because they would not be financially viable based on the social distancing required.

Tighter budgeting prior to COVID

They have benefited from earlier cost reductions put in place 12 months ago – “we run a fairly tight ship,” Sonya said.

VMCH has also reviewed its cash flow position and its investments as well as its strategic direction.

“We see the future of aged care to be very specialised,” Sonya said.

Technology key to future of aged care

As we reported in The SOURCE, VMCH has repurposed a former 42-bed aged care home in Prahran into its first-ever palliative care centre.

VMCH has also committed to growing its use of technology, employing a new Chief Information Officer.

“We decided we needed to be more technology-focused going forward and be more strategic in our technological engagement with customers,” Sonya said.

“The future of aged care requires us to offer good solutions to people at home and in residential care.”

More land purchased for future projects

The new Information Officer role will be focused on connecting their services such as the home monitoring systems as well as communication with families like booking services online.

“It’s really about access and integration,” Sonya said, using the example of delivering programs into people’s homes if they can’t come into a service.

Despite the setback created by COVID-19, Sonya says VMCH is also holding fast to its strong commitment to affordable housing and specialised care.

“We have purchased three different pieces of land recently so we are in quite a good position to keep moving forward.”

Adapting home care services to post-COVID world

VMCH also experienced a 21% drop in the cancellation of home care services in March which had a significant impact.

While this has fallen back to 4%, Sonya attributes this to the organisation quickly adapting its home care services, for example, leaving groceries on customers’ doorsteps, and having their customer service centres contact vulnerable clients.

They expanded their TeleFriend program – where volunteers and staff call to check in on people living at home – using the volunteers who could no longer visit their aged care homes in person.

Home monitoring technology now on offer

VMCH also rolled out umps technology – which uses a discreet set of smart plugs in your appliances to create a baseline of daily movements and monitor if people need support at home – for some of their vulnerable clients.

Its success means they will now be expanding the technology into their Home Care Packages, particularly for clients whose families are living interstate or overseas.

Lessons learnt from coronavirus scare

Sonya says the organisation has also learnt valuable lessons from a recent scare where a resident at their Bundoora aged care home produced an inconclusive test for COVID-19 – prompting a complete lockdown of the home, testing of all 214 residents and staff.

Despite further testing clearing the resident in question – and all other tests proving negative – the home had to remain in lockdown for the full 14 days.

They now keep specialised outbreak resources at all their sites so they can mobilise quickly in the event of a suspected outbreak and have prepopulated the forms required by the Commonwealth and State Government for an expected outbreak in all their homes.

Staff paid if they need to self-isolate

While VMCH does not offer formal ‘pandemic’ leave, staff are paid if they need to self-isolate.

“We had eight staff who were deemed to be in close contact at Bundoora so that was 14 days that they couldn’t be at work,” Sonya said. “We had to be cautious, but they needed to be supported during that time.”

However, Sonya commends her staff for being proactive and seeking testing every time they had symptoms.

New rewards program for staff

VMCH holds weekly webinars with staff to keep them informed and formalised their ‘Praise’ program which actively rewards staff for their work based on VMCH’s six values.

Staff are given $25 gift vouchers or go into a monthly draw to win a $100 gift voucher, with the final annual prize being a $1,000 gift voucher.

The vouchers can be given out on the spot – with some staff at Bundoora receiving vouchers to thank them for their work during the suspected outbreak.

Residents “thrived” during visitor restrictions

Interestingly, the CEO also says residents benefited during the lockdown because of the increased time spent with staff and volunteers.

VMCH had imposed strict visitor guidelines at the start of the pandemic to a positive response from residents and families.

“We surveyed residents on the restrictions and 87% thought the measures were excellent,” she said. Families also reported being happy with the communication from the provider, which Sonya stresses was a major focus for them.

“There were a lot more activates so residents really thrived during that time,” she said, adding: “We had less falls… everyone was much more vigilant.”

Children of staff at school shut down after students tested positive

While Sonya welcomes the new Industry Code for visiting aged care homes during the pandemic, she says that concerns about outbreaks are higher now than they were under the restrictions.

For example, VMCH has a site in Pakenham, 53km southeast of the Melbourne CBD, where the local primary school was closed this week after two students tested positive for coronavirus.

“We have the children of staff going to that school,” she said.

Maintaining morale and communication will take time and money

Sonya sees the challenges moving forward as the ongoing costs to maintain strict infection control measures and visitation requirements as well as ensuring staff stay engaged and feel supported.

“That takes time and money,” she said. “We have 500 people working from home and not all are going to be returning to the office [they plan a 50-50 split]so how do we keep our outputs high and our workforce mentally healthy.”

Their survey of residents’ families also showed that they had highly valued the communication from the provider.

“It’s just sustaining it now,” Sonya said.

Government needs to look at funding – including user pays system

VMCH is now preparing a submission for the Royal Commission around managing specialist needs such as dementia and palliative care, arguing that the aged care environment needed to move away from traditional design to providing spaces that are accessible, easy to navigate and support people with memory loss as well as being home-like.

While they say this the best model to provide care, Sonya points out these environments are expensive to build.