The tragic number of deaths at Newmarch House exposes all that is wrong with Australia’s residential aged care system and why the Australian government needs to undertake urgent reform to better protect our vulnerable aged care residents.
The Government needs to go further than Federal Labor’s call for the Aged Care Royal Commission to review the disaster that has unfolded since it was revealed a staff member worked six shifts whilst infected with COVID-19. We need a dedicated inquiry.
My concern with leaving an inquiry solely to the Royal Commission is not because it is not capable but because it is not clear that the Government is listening to or will respond to the Commission’s findings.
There are a number of reasons for my scepticism. One is the Government having voted down critical amendments to the Aged Care Legislation Amendment (New Commissioner Functions) Bill 2019 that were about delivering improved transparency and accountability around finances, staffing ratios and complaints in aged care homes. The Government chose not to take action despite the horror stories coming out of the Commission for a year and the release of its damning interim report.
It is scandalous that – despite the rising number of deaths at Newmarch House – both sick and healthy residents were locked in. Why weren’t sick residents transferred to hospital and those not infected with COVID-19 moved elsewhere?
State health officials publicly said other options are available. But I have heard a family had their request to move their loved one out of the facility denied. That resident subsequently contracted COVID-19 and died.
There are reports that residents weren’t getting treatment from doctors or registered nurses for days. This is not surprising because many aged care facilities run with inadequate numbers of staff who are unqualified and inadequately trained and required to care for residents with health problems. The Government has thrown money at the sector via a “no strings attached” COVID-19 rescue package – with no public information about how the figure requested was arrived it nor how the providers intend to spend it.
The rampant, nation-wide failures in governance, accountability, policy and the regulatory framework of aged care are all evident in the Newmarch House tragedy. And the underlying cause is the Aged Care Act 1997 which is weighted in favour of providers. The Act promotes the privatisation of services – allowing profits to prevail over quality of care.
Newmarch House residents and their families deserve a dedicated inquiry. They, and the broader Australian community, deserve a new Aged Care Act which delivers proper regulation, independent complaints investigation, provider accountability, public performance reporting and appropriate staffing for better quality of care.
The Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) has also issued a media release calling for an inquiry into the Newmarch House tragedy. Catherine Henry is an ALA spokesperson on aged care and elder law.