Whether we are talking about climate change, bushfire management, poverty, inequality, employment, health, education, Indigenous disadvantage, or the myriad other responsibilities of government, the Coalition will always put profit in front of risk avoidance.
Nowhere is this more tragically playing out than in the crisis we are witnessing in the aged care sector.
In the 1996-97 budget, the Howard government slashed $1 billion from aged care funding and introduced its Aged Care Act, claiming that higher fees and bonds would provide the incentive for investors to expand and improve the industry. Instead, conditions in nursing homes deteriorated and average waiting time lengthened significantly.
Under the Act, nursing home operators no longer had to allocate a set proportion of government subsidies to patient care. Links between the level of funding received and the number of qualified staff employed were removed. In 1998 the previous requirement for a registered nurse to be on duty was scrapped.
Homes and hostels were to be licensed for three years, with standards monitored through spot checks. Yet no such checks were ever conducted, Bishop admitted. According to Tim Burns, the general manager of the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency, its ability to carry out monitoring was severely compromised due to insufficient funding. He stated during Senate estimates hearings that the agency was 60 to 65 external assessors short in New South Wales and Victoria alone.
The Aged Care Act specified that audit reviews of nursing homes be made public on a regular basis. However, in late 1999, a list rating nursing homes was removed from the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency’s web site in order “not to put undue pressure on homes, which may be rapidly moving to improve their situations”.
The government’s changes made the industry a more lucrative target for corporate takeovers. Under the headline, “Golden Oldies,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported on 2 March 2000 that “Nursing homes are big business, with handsome profits, for some”. American-based corporations were “moving into Australia to capitalise on a growth industry protected by an assured flow of government funds”.
Managing director Kevin Moss said: “Once you are in the business you have a guaranteed government income. It’s a very good business. It’s been a cottage industry in Australia … and some have milked the cow. But we are trying to get it more corporatised and professional.”
Having been given cash to spend as they saw fit for the previous three years, business operators were free to exit the industry before January 1, 2001, the next accreditation deadline, without having invested a cent in improvements, and then sell their bed licenses for up to $35,000 each, the going price on the Sydney market at that time.
The doctors’ organisation, the Australian Medical Association, and the nurses’ union, the Australian Nursing Federation, warned that between 600 and 2,500 beds would close on January 1 in the state of Victoria alone, intensifying the crisis.
In 2000, Regina Lohr and Mike Head ended their article about the aged care crisis with a chilling warning.
“Like every other aspect of life, aged care has become an increasingly two-class system. High quality homes with modern facilities, strict medical and hygiene standards, fresh and nourishing food and tranquil surroundings exist—but they are reserved for the wealthy who can afford fees in the order of $900 a week and entry bonds around $250,000. For lower middle class and working class retirees, the conditions have become Dickensian.
Increasingly stripped of all protective and regulatory remnants of the post-war welfare state, the unleashing of the “free market” is producing conditions where the majority of elderly people are treated as so much unwanted refuse. Medical science has significantly increased life expectancy, but, under the imperatives of the profit system, those who suffer the misfortune of being poor are simply being disposed of as cheaply and quickly as possible.”
In May 2018, Bill Shorten said that the aged care industry was “in a state of national crisis”.
“That’s extreme language, but this situation in aged care calls for extreme,” Mr Shorten said, arguing the government has been “asleep at the wheel” for the last five years.
Former Aged Care Minister, Ken Wyatt, responded angrily.
“I’m slow to anger but I must admit that recently the Opposition Leader commenting that the system is in crisis and a national disgrace was not becoming of what I would expect in a bilateral and bipartisan approach to aged care.
“This demeans every one of those dedicated aged care workers and it achieves nothing but instilling fear into the hearts and minds of older Australians, just like Labor did in the lead-up to the last election when they were peddling ‘Medi-scare’ lies designed to scare the most deserving.
“For the Opposition Leader to continue this fear-mongering is verging on the abuse of elder Australians and it must stop.”
Mr Wyatt argued that the Turnbull government cared more about older Australians than Labor given their proposal to remove the cash refund arrangement on excess dividend imputation credits.
As we watch the pandemic devastate our aged care facilities, Scott Morrison now has the hide to stand up and remind us that he called the Royal Commission into Aged Care. It’s a pity it took the spectre of an imminent Four Corners expose, Who Cares, to make him do it. The program was to air on September 17, 2018. #ScottyFromMarketing, in a preemptive move to cover his arse, called the RC on September 15.
When interviewed by the ABC about a month earlier, Wyatt had said a royal commission would be an unnecessary move because the Government was already reviewing the sector.
“A royal commission, after two years and maybe $200 million being spent on it, will come back with the same set or a very similar set of recommendations,” he said, preferring to see that money go towards frontline aged care services.
That’s their MO. If the media make a fuss, commission a report and then ignore it whilst focusing on how to minimise regulations and workers’ entitlements whilst maximising profit for investors.
We can thank the ABC for dragging the government kicking and screaming to conduct various different commissions and inquiries. Sadly, they cannot make them act on their recommendations and, instead, face prosecution for truthfully revealing the nefarious dealings of those who purport to govern in the best interests of the nation.
We are witnessing what their deregulation and erosion of job security and ignoring of expert warnings deliver. Rather than learn any lessons during this pandemic, our Treasurer invokes Thatcher and Reagan who hugely increased inequality and diminished workers’ rights and protections. Persistently high rates of income or wealth inequality are bad for social cohesion, political inclusion and crime. The evidence for this is overwhelming.
As Bobby Kennedy so wisely said:
“the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
That is something that those fixated solely on profit and the seemingly infinite growth of GDP will never understand.
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