Speaking at a panel event discussing the care economy at the national conference of the Aged and Community Care Providers Association on Thursday, Catherine De Fontenay – commissioner of the Productivity Commission – said: “The financial statistics are, frankly, terrifying.”
Noting that 66 per cent of residential aged care providers are operating at a loss, Ms De Fontenay said: “That is an insane situation. It would be very frightening if anybody were putting their parents into aged care at this time because it’s very difficult to think how providers could afford to provide quality care.”
She added: “If you’re in a financial death spiral or if you’re really struggling, then it’s going to be really difficult to make improvements.”
Also on the panel was Carmela Sergi – interim chief executive officer of the Care Economy Cooperative Research Centre. “The key to achieving a sustainable system moving forward is innovation,” said Ms Sergi. “It’s a way of improving what you do, bringing in new things, new techniques, new ways of delivering services, new approaches.”
Innovation, she told delegates seated in the main hall of the Adelaide Convention Centre, is not all about technology. “Innovation is about doing things differently and doing things better,” she said.
Ms De Fontenay told delegates that measures such as the mandatory care minutes were restricting innovation. “We need to allow providers more freedom to deliver care in any innovative way they want,” she said. “And as long as we’re properly measuring people’s happiness and satisfaction, then that’s the right way to figure out if the care is being delivered.”
Discussing regulation, Peter Selwood – CEO of home care provider Centacare – said the system needed simplifying. “It’s too hard. And it shouldn’t be too hard; it should be made easier. I’m not suggesting for one minute we walk away from compliance – but it’s not the end game.”
He added: “There has to be a degree of administration – we can’t avoid that – but we’re putting that responsibility on people who aren’t really cut out for it and aren’t passionate about that work and see it as a burden. We’ve got to find a way to get around that.”
Council on the Ageing Australia CEO Patricia Sparrow told delegates the current regulatory system failed to measure what was important to older people. “We know we have to have regulation and compliance – it’s important. But it’s a bit tick-a-box … We have to look at how regulation reflects what’s important for older people. How it supports rather than gets in the way of what providers are needing to do.”
Sue Elderton – senior policy advisor at Carers Australia – was asked by facilitator Tony Jones whether unpaid carers were counted as part of the care economy. “They’re very much part of the care economy,” she said. “In 2020, family and friend carers contributed 3.3 billion hours of care a year.”
Demand for carers will significantly increase over time, said Ms Elderton. “Most of that increase is because of what’s going to happen when the baby boomers come into aged care.”
Mr Selwood said Centracare was struggling to recruit and retain unpaid carers. “There is something of a crisis looming – if it’s not already upon us around the dependency we have as a community and a society on volunteers.”
Returning to sector sustainability, the panelists were asked for their thoughts on co-contributions as a way to futureproof Australia’s aged care system. Ms Sparrow told delegates older people have been saying for some time that they are prepared to pay more for quality care. “If they can afford to do so,” she said.
Providers would support any process that will improve capacity to deliver better care, said Mr Selwood. “But it’s the challenge of convincing the client base, the carers – the unpaid carers and the family members – that that would be a good way to go forward.”
Below, Patricia Sparrow talks with CCR from the fringes of the conference.
Main image L-R: Tony Jones, Carmela Sergi, Catherine De Fontenay, Sue Elderton, Patricia Sparrow and Peter Selwood discuss the care economy at ACCPA’s national conference