May 13, 2022

Aged care minister Richard Colbeck gives rare interview on reform progress

Richard Colbeck rare appearance

In an online webinar with the outgoing chief executive of Council on the Ageing, Ian Yates AM, Colbeck said aged care reform has been “one of the most important” achievements of his working career.

However, Colbeck has maintained a low profile since the election was called, despite aged care being a central platform of the campaign.

Yates said there is frustration in the community that nothing appears to be changing in aged care. Colbeck said he “understands people’s frustration”, but that reform takes time.

“I understand the desire from the community for things to move along,” he said. But he noted that there are about 70 projects underway across the aged care sector related to reform, and he often hears from those within the sector that reform is “moving too fast”.

The new Aged Care Act is due to come in in the middle of next year and the government’s five-pillar plan is being implemented over five years – both will involve significant reform of the sector. 

Colbeck said it is important to take advantage of the “imprimatur” the royal commission has given and “maintain the momentum” of the “publicity” around the investigation.

He said after previous reviews that “cans have been kicked down the road … our determination as a government was to make sure that we did this properly”.

He committed to maintaining the pace of reform even after the election.

Home care

One of the reforms Colbeck said he is most proud of is the “significant gains” in home care.

“When I came to the portfolio, the number of people on the national priority list was something like 129,000. It’s now down to about 60,000 and continuing to decline. We’re rolling out new packages at the rate of about 770 a week.” 

He said when someone is assessed as a high needs recipient for any level of home care package, they will now receive that in less than 30 days. 

The maximum wait for a package at the assessed level is seven months compared with 18 to 24 months when he took over the portfolio.

Workforce

However, many in the community who have been allocated their home care package are unable to receive care due to staff shortages. 

Colbeck said aged care workers will be sourced from overseas.

“We will move very quickly after the election” to support aged care workers to come into the country, he added.

Aged care worker pay

Colbeck acknowledged that working in aged care can be “very, very difficult, heavy work” and making sure the workforce is properly remunerated “is very important”.

With the labour market tight, Colbeck is also concerned that pay will become “an inhibitor” to people choosing to work in the sector.

He fell short of committing to support higher wages, explaining that if the Fair Work Commission recommends a wage increase for aged care workers, those higher costs will feed into the new AN-ACC funding mechanism, which will then flow through to the government’s funding model.

“It’s a very different way to [how aged care funding has been determined] in the past, which has been based on an indexation system,” Colbeck said.

Aged care funding

Along with the new Independent Hospitals and Aged Care Pricing Authority, the AN-ACC will mean that costs of care will be regularly assessed and form the basis of recommendations to the government, Colbeck explained.

Using the workforce as an example, which comprises 70% of aged care costs, Colbeck said any “movement” in workforce costs “gets picked up in the annual assessment”.

The AN-ACC model will also remove some of the disincentives to facilitating re-enablement, he said. 

“We want people to be improving in their wellness as they go into residential aged care,” Colbeck said.

Transparency

Transparency around staffing and financial accountability is an important issue in the community, and has been raised during the election campaign.

Colbeck noted recent improvements to transparency, including the Significant Incident Response Scheme (SIRS), reporting on food, the new star rating system, quarterly reporting (rather than annual), the inclusion of care minutes, nursing time and allied health in reporting, and a monthly care report from providers to consumers.

Reporting on food, which is a requirement of receiving the additional $10 per resident, means food services can be measured and reported on.

“We now have, for the first time, a much better sense of how much providers are actually spending on food,” Colbeck observed. 

A ‘rights based’ system

A listener asked Colbeck if Australia should have a “rights based” aged care system.

The new Act will be about “ensuring that the rights of individuals receiving care are appropriately respected,” Colbeck replied.

The new Aged Care Advisory Council and the Council of Elders will also ensure that the rights of older people are embedded into the system that advises government.

Technology

With over 40% of aged care providers reporting their quality indicators manually, Colbeck is a great believer in further digitising of the sector. The government is working on developing an interface with the industry.

A recent study by the University of Canberra found that using a new IT system in the care delivery process returned to the provider an additional 20% of nursing time and a similar amount in personal care worker time. 

“That contributes directly to the provision of care capacity,” Colbeck said.

Within three years, the sector should be completely online and reporting in real time, although Colbeck acknowledged it has to be done in a way that doesn’t add to the costs and burden on the already overladen sector.

The ageing population

Yates asked how the government will support the ageing population.

Colbeck said the Council of Elders will mean not only that older people have “input into the reform process”, but it will also provide a vehicle to “hear the voices of senior Australians more broadly”. 

“Attitudinal change” is required in relation to “how we view senior Australians”, he said, acknowledging that Australians’ attitudes towards older people are probably one of the reasons the sector hasn’t had the “visibility” it should have – until now.

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  1. The only problem I can see is getting ppl from overseas to work in aged care, alot of residents don’t understand them,as there English is not very good and the residents get very frustrated. They need to train the staff properly and they need to speak better English.

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