By Dr Sarah Russell*
A MORNINGTON Peninsula Shire councillor claims the federal government “forced” the shire to outsource its aged care services to private providers. Really? This contradicts advice from the Department of Health and Aged Care.
The department states that it encourages councils to deliver aged care services: “[Councils] have been consulted, encouraged and supported and may be eligible for a grant to assist with their higher costs.”
Furthermore, as a result of the outsourcing, the personal details of thousands of people were given to private providers: 1554 client records were given to Bolton Clarke; 2063 were given to Mecwacare.
A member of Older Person’s Advocacy Network has raised concerns with me about whether individual clients gave “informed consent” for this transfer of their highly personal information. “I have raised questions about the stealth of [the shire’s] withdrawal (from aged care) and whether it obtained genuine informed consent for clients’ data to be passed on to the replacement providers.”
I have not been able to ascertain the steps taken to ensure clients gave “genuine” informed consent for their personal details to be transferred. Obtaining genuine informed consent is an onerous, but very important, task. Without informed consent, there is a potential to breach privacy laws.
Over the past few weeks, I have tried, without success, to speak with the mayor CR Anthony Marsh about councillors’ decision to outsource aged care services. Did they explore other options? Or did they merely accept the council staff’s advice?
I have also sought information about how the shire selected Mecwacare and Bolton Clarke as the two providers. I asked the mayor to describe the selection process. I got no response.
After having no success with the mayor, I turned to another councillor who was willing to provide details of the outsourcing. I wanted to know what steps the shire took to do the right thing by all older ratepayers.
The councillor gave the Nuremberg defence: “We were forced to outsource as that was the federal government’s direction to all councils in an area of funding that they control.”
The councillor further stated that: “Councils have no powers to fight against these directions.”
This claim is gobsmacking. Councillors are elected precisely to represent their constituents. Of course, they have power.
Not so long ago, Darebin and Moonee Valley councils were in a similar position. Their staff had recommended that aged care services be outsourced. However, after outrage from the community and the union, both councils chose to reject this advice.
A Moonee Valley councillor explained the reason for her opposition to outsourcing. “Make no mistake, this decision (not to outsource) was a barometer of the values of our council. Too often, the discussion around service provision is reduced to a simple financial equation, failing to adequately consider the real value in having councils remain as providers.
“Our aged care workers are valued and often loved by their clients. Our older residents and their families know there is a peace of mind that comes with having a highly trained council employee provide aged care services for them or their family member.
“There are numerous examples of personal service outsourcing failing miserably, of the quest for profit and financial goals diminishing the care and respect that our older community members so deserve.
“Councils are the safe hands, the trusted providers driven not by the return to their shareholders but by the desire to ensure our older residents have the best care possible. For most councils, this is not an issue of rate capping or affordability. It is simply a matter of priorities.”
Darebin Council also chose to work with older people and aged care advocates (including me) to improve the support provided. Darebin not only continues to provide services under the Commonwealth Home Support Program but also delivers home care packages. The councillors listened to older people in the community who stated they wanted their council, not private companies, to provide aged care services in their homes.
In my research for the Federal Minister for Aged Care, older people spoke highly about local council aged care services. In contrast, older people raised numerous concerns about private providers, particularly large companies.
The most common complaint about large private providers was the high turnover of unqualified, inexperienced and poorly trained support workers. A high turnover of staff is a recipe for disaster. It results in strangers being sent to work in an older person’s home. Older people have to just trust that they will be treated with respect and kindness.
Mornington Peninsula councillors had the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Darebin and Moonee Valley councils by rejecting the advice from council staff. Instead, they chose the easier path – to wash their hands of aged care services.
The question we now need to ask is: Does Mornington Peninsula Shire Council stand up for its older residents or does it want to be a council that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing?
*Dr Sarah Russell is a public health researcher. Her reports on home care are available at: agedcarematters.net.au