Community transport at a crossroads

Community transport provides an important service to help older people stay at home, but providers say it’s failing to meet demand and drowning in red tape.

Activus Transport Services, based in the Sutherland Shire in Sydney, has been providing community transport for older Australians since 1979. Today it has almost 5,000 active clients and a fleet of 22 vehicles.

Greg Stanger

It makes about 6,000 trips per year, transporting clients from the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Liverpool; making sure older travel-disadvantaged people can attend medical appointments, enjoy recreational activities and get out to do their shopping.

General Manager Greg Stanger says community transport is a lifeline for older people who are no longer able to drive themselves.

“It could be that they don’t feel confident to drive anymore, or don’t have a licence to drive anymore,” he told Community Care Review.

“Quite often we have customers who are single, widowed who maybe don’t have family that live nearby and no ability to access the current transport network, so without the service they wouldn’t be able to remain active in the community.”

He says the service is hugely popular among older community members.

“We are absolutely bursting at the seams,” he says.

Growing demand

According to official figures from The Australian Community Transport Association, the national peak body for the community transport sector, more than 250,000 people use community transport across Australia.

But Lyndon Stevenson, chair of ACTA, says there’s anecdotal evidence the number could be higher and is increasing.

“Community transport has evolved, and there’s lots of people accessing the service,” he told Community Care Review.

Lyndon Stevenson

“Although we don’t have hard data to suggest that it has increased, from talking to our state peaks and the providers the numbers are absolutely increasing.”

The growth in the ageing population is driving the increase, he says.

“Over 80 per cent of consumers are over the age of 65, that frail age. People under 65 would make up about 25 per cent, and the remaining would be over 65. People aged between 75 and 90 are the highest portion of usership,” he says.

At present, services are struggling to meet demand, Mr Stevenson says.

“We have providers recording that their cars are full, and they have now got to a spot where the resource of community transport is not meeting the demand of the community,” he says.

Strangled by red tape

Activus’ Greg Stanger says another huge change facing the industry is the increase in regulatory requirements.

“The amount of red tape has made it more difficult for community transport to continue,” Mr Stanger says.

Compliance regulations include people checks, police checks and audits to ensure aged care and NDIS standards are met.

Mr Stevenson says he understands the need for regulation but agrees it poses challenges for the sector, including making it difficult to use volunteers.

“We are regularly audited against the standards, and that means that volunteers need access to more training and a higher demand is placed on the volunteer than before, and organisations need to invest more in equality and risk management staff.”

NDIS disruption

More funding is needed to help the industry grow, Mr Stevenson says.

“The number one issue for the sector across the country is the way the service will be funded into the future,” he says.  

 “At this stage, as a provider, if we are delivering services to someone in CHSP we can charge them a subsidised rate for service.

“But if that person then transitions to a home care package the next day we have to charge them full cost recovery. The price could go up by around 80 per cent because we’re not able to cross-subsidise the program.”

Since July 2018, the Transport for NSW National Disability Insurance Scheme Residual Transport Subsidy was made available to NDIS participants and will be until June 2020.

Mr Stevenson says the introduction of this funding has caused some disruption to the sector.

“We found that after a lot of disruption that most states are continuing their under-65 transport funding because they recognise that the NDIS funding for transport isn’t sufficient,” he says. 

“That it’s not sufficient to cover the requirements of people with a disability, and of course not everybody who has a disability is eligible for NDIS.”

Mr Stanger says he holds concerns about the future of community if there are changes to aged care funding, including rolling CHSP into the HCP program.

“Community transport relies on CHSP funding and that is under threat in the future,” he says.

Mr Stanger says community services are being forced to become less reliant on government funding and he’d like to see more investment and collaboration from the private sector.

He’d also like to see greater integration of community transport within the broader NSW transport system.

“We also want to see the advancement of technology in community transport, and to make sure that it’s front and centre.”

  Technology a game changer

Connect: Inner West community transport operates in inner western Sydney. It has a client base of about 2,000, with 800 to 1,000 active users at any given time.

General Manager Brett Andrews says the organisation is embracing technology as an agent of transformation.

“One of the biggest changes (in community transport) is the use of technology to get operational efficiency and get costs down,” Mr Andrews told Community Care Review.

Connect: Inner West is using technology that enables route maps to be connected remotely to the dispatch system, which communicates with Cabcharge. It will soon be introducing a Cabcharge card to its clients to be used at night and weekends.

“If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t be able to offer services in the evenings or weekends,” Mr Andrews says.

Activus is also developing apps for its clients to use at home to book for the service.

“Because it’s a community service, they do expect to have all the mod cons and services just like a normal commercial service,” Mr Stanger says.

However, he admits this has been a challenge because most of his clients don’t use smartphones.

An advocate for community transport

Activus announced in January that it had appointed Associate Professor Peter Gonski as an ambassador to help raise awareness about community transport.

Peter Gonski

Professor Gonski says community transport has to be part of an integrated approach to the provision of aged care services.

“When we provide services to the elderly it has to be a very holistic approach and a very integrated approach, and it needs to cover the physical side, the mental side, the cognition and the social side,” he says.

Mr Andrews says community transport gives people the option to continue to live independently and compensates for loss of independence.

“Giving up your licence for a lot of people is a significant ageing milestone, and that’s a loss of independence,” he says.

“But if you place it with some on-demand transport… you can still do things, and you’ve got control over that too, you’re still independent.”

Mr Stevenson says community transport is vital in ensuring people can live at home longer.

“It needs to be recognised as a service that is fundamental to aging in place and fundamental to supporting the aged care vision,” he says.

“When someone’s of a frail aged, or has a disability, and they’re at home, transport’s often the only service that allows them to stay living at home.

“At the end of the day, it’s much cheaper to support people living in their homes.”

Tags: ACTA, Activus-transport-services, Australian-community-transport-association, Greg-Stanger, inner-west-community-transport, Lyndon-stevenson, Peter-Gonski,

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