Newmarch COVID-19 crisis highlights aged care system failure

The growing privatisation of a significant sector of aged care providers is a key part of its crisis.

Newmarch House, an aged care home in Western Sydney operated by the Anglican Church charity arm Anglicare, has become the new epicentre of COVID-19 infections in New South Wales.

As of May 6, 16 residents have died, and 63 have been confirmed positive. On May 4, Anglicare asked the private healthcare contractor Aspen Medical to stand down one of its staff over alleged breaches of infection control. Aspen Medical, who also provides services to Border Force, was involved in the Ruby Princess debacle.

A staff member was first tested positive on April 11, but it has taken until this week for daily testing to be undertaken. Now, more than a third of the residents and 26 staff members have tested positive.

Health Services Union NSW general secretary Gerard Hayes said daily testing should “absolutely” have happened earlier and it should not have taken so many deaths to offer a simple procedure. He said testing should have been performed “across the board” two months ago, when there was an outbreak at the Dorothy Henderson Lodge. “We know aged care is such a vulnerable sector of the community and it should have been done from day one,” he told ABC Radio National on May 4.

How multiple sources of the virus entered into Newmarch House is now under investigation. Relatives have had to speak directly to the media to make their concerns about the lack of testing, the lack of information and the need for safe visiting arrangements, heard.

Elizabeth Lane told the ABC on May 3: “Mum’s a sitting duck at the moment ... it just seems to be a game of Russian roulette for the negative patients at the moment because we’re still getting new cases all the time … There’s a general feeling with a lot of us [families] that it is simply a matter of time until we get that phone call.”

Anglicare is only now talking to families about moving residents who do not have coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the federal government wants aged-care homes opened for relatives. The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has even threatened to force aged care providers to seek official exemptions for lockdowns if the sector cannot agree to increased visits.

But providers are concerned that they do not have enough staff to monitor visitors and ensure compliance. Peak aged care bodies want more federal funding to help them during this crisis.

The failures at Newmarch House point to fundamental flaws in the aged care system which the interim findings of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety have noted.

Neglect, tabled last October 31, found that the system “fails to meet the needs of its older, vulnerable, citizens” and “does not deliver uniformly safe and quality care”. Further, it found too many homes are “unkind and uncaring towards older people and, in too many instances, it neglects them”

Federal Labor has called for the commission, which has now been extended, to specifically investigate what went wrong at Newmarch House.

The report noted with concern that the aged care sector is becoming a “market” in which older people are “customers” who shop around for a service. That market includes for-profit corporations and supposedly not-for-profit, mostly church-based, aged care facilities.

It noted: “The aged care sector prides itself in being an ‘industry’ and it behaves like one. This masks the fact that 80 per cent of its funding comes directly from government coffers. Australian taxpayers have every right to expect that a sector so heavily funded by them should be open and fully accountable to the public and seen as a ‘service’ to them.”

It recommended that “a fundamental overhaul of the design, objectives, regulation and funding of aged care in Australia”.

The growing privatisation of a significant sector of aged care providers is a key part of its crisis. A 2018 Tax Justice Network study found that just six private, for-profit corporations operate more than 20% of residential care beds.

COVID-19 has further revealed the disastrous impact of years of privatisation, outsourcing and deregulation in the aged care sector. In the long-term, public subsidies to private health and aged care providers must end. Immediately, however, more funds must go to boost staff numbers and professionals at aged care facilities.

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