Aged Care Legislation Amendment (Emergency Leave) Bill 2020

14 May 2020

I rise on behalf of Centre Alliance to speak in support of the Aged Care Legislation Amendment (Emergency Leave) Bill 2020. The changes proposed in this bill are very important, and the current pandemic crisis has underscored the need for such changes. The bill introduces a new type of leave that permanent residential aged-care residents can utilise during situations such as natural disasters, pandemics and other large-scale emergencies. These can affect the safe provisions of residential aged care and, indeed, the safety of the resident

Currently permanent aged-care residents are entitled to take 52 days of non-hospital related leave, known as social leave, within the financial year. When an aged-care resident exceeds their annual social leave entitlement, the aged-care home no longer receives the Commonwealth residential care subsidy for that person, meaning the provider then needs to pass these costs on to the resident or their family. Importantly, the emergency leave under these changes would not be limited to a number of days or a specific time frame. Indeed, the minister can deem the length of time the emergency remains in place as well as the end date.

There is no financial impact for the government created by the proposed amendments. Any costs associated with the updates to the aged-care payment system are to be funded from existing programs. The legislation also provides for each declaration made by a minister or his or her delegate to be tabled as a disallowable instrument so there can be further oversight when this emergency leave provision is enacted—a very important component.

The provisions of this bill will no doubt give comfort to families who have watched the horror of COVID-19 outbreaks unfolding at aged-care facilities such as the Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Newmarch House. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 virus has had a significant impact on the residential and home care of older Australians. It has, sadly, infected residents and aged-care workers and claimed lives. Our deepest sympathies go to all families who have lost loved ones.

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that many family members have made the decision to continue caring for their loved ones in their own homes and not to return to the residential aged-care facility to receive this care. We're told that there are currently around 500 Australian families caring for their loved ones under these social leave arrangements. This has resulted in many older Australians passing—or soon to pass—the 52-day social leave cap currently allowed for. The resident, or their family, is currently required to pay the government subsidy of $230 per resident per day to save their place in the residential aged-care facility that they are taking leave from. For many families and consumers this is very much an unsustainable cost. The proposed legislation will ensure that the family or consumer will not take on this unnecessary financial burden if they have passed that 52-day social leave arrangement.

Significantly, the legislation will operate retrospectively to 1 April 2020 for the social leave, so that all families can be covered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This, without doubt, will be a huge relief for the many families currently caring for their loved ones in their home. We understand that the Commonwealth will continue to pay the subsidy to those residents accessing social leave from 1 July 2020 as well, and we also welcome this. At this stage, we are told there will be no end date put forward for the current COVID-19 pandemic in relation to this emergency social leave. We will certainly monitor this going forward.

There is no doubt the pandemic crisis has created difficult and challenging times for residents, for their families and of course for those who support and care for our older Australians. The coronavirus pandemic is testing the aged-care sector and many other sectors in our community in ways that none of us could ever have imagined. Facilities have plans in place for infectious diseases such as influenza or a gastro outbreak, but coronavirus makes these pale in comparison. These times call for exceptional courage on all fronts. Older Australians living in aged-care facilities have seen a lifetime of ups and downs and are now the ones absolutely most vulnerable to this pandemic.

The aged-care workforce, working part-time or casually, many coming from overseas, are doing hard work with dedication and care, and we very much thank them. The aged-care facility management are making very tough calls, balancing the respect and dignity of their residents with the care and protection of them and their staff. In the interests of seeing swift passage of this bill through the parliament, we have chosen not to seek to amend the legislation, despite it offering up another opportunity to move significant amendments for much-needed financial transparency for the sector.

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