Oh dear Josh: is that aged care joke funny or sad?

by Dr Sarah Russell and Elizabeth Minter | Apr 9, 2022 | Government

He might be the second most important man in our government, but Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is still learning the basics about important aspects of his portfolio, such as who pays who for what and what exists and doesn’t yet, write Elizabeth Minter and Sarah Russell.

Does the Treasurer of Australia, the second highest job in the Commonwealth government, understand how the aged-care sector works or how it is funded? Going by an interview on ABC Insiders last Sunday, it doesn’t look like it. Yet he is responsible for overseeing the $23.6 billion (soon to be $30 billion) of taxpayers’ money going into the sector.

The Fair Work Commission will make a decision later this year regarding how much the pay of aged care workers should increase.

Insiders Host David Speers asked Treasurer Frydenberg whether the federal government would pay the whole wages bill or just a percentage. 

Said the Treasurer: “When it comes to government provision of residential care then we take responsibility for that. … We pick up the bill today.”

We have news for Minister Frydenberg: Your federal government doesn’t fund government-operated aged care homes. The states fund these homes. No doubt all the premiers were thrilled to hear you offer to pick up the wages’ bill for their government-operated residential care.

Just to clear up some minor billion dollar points

Just to be clear, Treasurer, your federal government funds the private providers of aged care. This includes both for-profit and not-for profit providers. 

Furthermore, did you hop into a time machine when you spoke about the independent pricing authority? Were you referring to the Independent Hospital and Aged Care Pricing Authority?

As you told Speers: “With respect to the private sector, what we have now is an independent pricing authority that takes into account the input costs and then makes the [aged care] subsidies increase accordingly.”

However, the independent pricing authority that was recommended by Lynelle Briggs (one of the aged care royal commissioners) doesn’t commence until July 1, 2023. Does this mean we taxpayers can expect another year or so of rorting by unscrupulous private providers?

In response to a question from Speers as to what percentage of the pay rises the private operators will have to pick up from the Fair Work decision, Frydenberg responded: “There’s an Independent Pricing Authority that determines … what that increase in subsidy will be”.

Again, that’s the authority that won’t exist for another year or so. So will aged-care workers employed by private providers have to wait another year or so before they see an increase in their woeful pay packages?

And Frydenberg accuses Labor’s Anthony Albanese of being “all at sea” in his costings.

Apart from the Independent Authority wot doesn’t exist

But before any decisions should be made regarding who picks up the tab, transparency is desperately required. In the past two weeks alone, it has been revealed that the Uniting Church and the Anglican Church have raided their aged care subsidies to settle child sex abuse claims. 

For years I [Dr Sarah Russell] have been demanding transparency regarding the billions of dollars handed out to aged-care providers. Back in 2019, three critical amendments to aged-care legislation were tabled in Parliament. The Liberal-Nationals Coalition voted against all three.

These amendments would have been a game-changer. They would have improved transparency and accountability around finances, staffing ratios and complaints in aged care homes.

The peak bodies lobbied hard against the financial transparency amendment and produced a “red tape” report claiming that sharing financial data with the public would lead to excessive costs. It was a spurious claim given that providers already share this data with the Department of Health and the authoritative Stewart Brown accountants.

Compare the Coalition’s distaste for transparency in aged-care spending with its demand for transparency around the $741 million joint flood relief package with Queensland announced this week. The federal government’s share of payments represents just 1% of the $30 billion aged care bill.

Do as I say, not as I do

Said Prime Minister Scott Morrison: “So we’ll meet that 50-50 cost, but there’ll be a couple of conditions. I want them to be transparent with the payments that are being made. I want them to report to the public.”

Aged-care lobbyist Sean Rooney also popped up on ABC television this week on Afternoon Briefing in an interview with Fran Kelly and Dr Sarah Russell. 

Rooney is the CEO of Leading Aged Services Australia, the peak group that lobbied federal MPs to block the transparency amendments. 

He was asked to respond to the rorting of home care packages by aged care providers, many of whom are members of LASA. The Aged Care Royal Commission heard that $53,000 – the top level of home care – provided less than nine hours a week of care for vulnerable older people. In some cases aged-care providers charge out-support workers at $60 an hour but only pay them $22 an hour. 

And what was Rooney’s advice to older Australians who were getting ripped off? Change providers, get assistance from the Older Person’s Advocacy Network and complain to the regulator. Seriously.

Isn’t that like PM Scott Morrison’s advice to renters and young Australians; to just go out and buy a house?

“Part of the reforms … in the home care market is to be able to provide people with choice and if someone is finding they are not satisfied with either the quality or the price of the service being charged to them, they thankfully have the choice to be able to choose another provider to be able to meet their needs.”

“If people feel taken advantage of, there are other avenues – through the older persons advocacy network, through the quality and safety commission to be able to bring these things to the attention of the system…. that something is not right and needs to be addressed because it denigrates the good name of the services that are doing a good job.”

There you have it. Is it any wonder the aged care sector is in crisis. 

Sarah Russell is the Voices of Mornington Peninsula endorsed Independent candidate for Flinders; Elizabeth Minter is Dr Russell’s policy/media advisor. 

Dr Sarah Russell is a public health researcher. She is the Principal Researcher at Research Matters and Chair of Progressives of the Peninsula. She was formerly the Director, Aged Care Matters.

A 30-year veteran of the mainstream media, Liz was the editor of Michael West Media until June 2021. Liz began her career in journalism in 1990 and worked at The Age newspaper for two 10-year stints. She also worked at The Guardian newspaper in London for more than seven years. A former professional tennis player who represented Australia in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Liz has a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Letters (Hons).

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