Red tape reduction reduces care of our elders

Issue 
NSW Nurses and Midwives Association general secretary Brett Holmes.

It’s reasonable to expect, that if you visit a relative or friend in a nursing home in NSW, you will find a registered nurse on duty. But that could change this year.

The NSW Public Health Act currently requires all “nursing homes” in the state to have a registered nurse on duty 24/7. However, changes to the federal Aged Care Act in mid-2014 have now undermined this requirement.

Registered nurses are essential because they oversee medications, undertake specialised nursing procedures and provide palliative care. They also provide important support and advice to other nursing home staff, as well as families.

NSW Nurses and Midwives Association (NMA) general secretary Brett Holmes warned in an editorial in the union’s journal The Lamp (Vol. 71, No.11): “Some aged care providers will no doubt see this as an opportunity to reduce costs and sidestep regulatory oversight.”

Stella Topaz, NSW NMA Professional Officer for Aged Care told Green Left Weekly on February 18 that the changes were part of the ALP’s Living Longer Living Better reforms in 2013, which the coalition government then passed.

Topaz told GLW that the union lobbied the ALP and then LNP at both state and federal levels about the unintended consequence this would have on the Public Health Act.

Residential aged care has also been the target of the Abbott government’s so-called Red Tape Reduction initiative — promoted as reducing the cost of government regulation. The changes have been criticised as reducing care, reducing government oversight and potentially enabling nursing homes to maintain accreditation with less frequent quality of care audits.

In October, 2014, Kevin Andrews, the then-Social Services Minister, justified the change this way: “By helping to lighten the unnecessary administrative burden on aged care staff, providers can put a greater focus on the safety and wellbeing of care recipients.”

In October 2014, Andrews’ department launched a trial of the government’s ‘red-tape-free’ aged care system in South Australia.

At the time of the trial, the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association spoke out against undermining regulation in nursing homes, saying: “The government’s idea to get rid of unnecessary red tape in nursing homes is muddle-headed, because the red tape of quality of care audits is there for a reason: to protect vulnerable and frail elderly people. … This is an argument for strengthening quality of care audits, not for abolishing them, which is what the government wants to do, to loud cheers from profit-hungry aged care providers.”

ABC Radio journalist Sue Lannin reported on PM on January 24, that every year the Federal Government pumps more than $10 billion in subsidies and grants into the nation's nursing homes.

Nationally, the overwhelming majority of residential aged care providers are in the private (for profit) or not-for-profit sector. A 2011 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare put this figure at 90%, with 30% and 60% of facilities run by the private and not-for-profit sectors, respectively.

PM also reported that documents released under Freedom of Information show that almost one in five new nursing homes failed to meet quality standards last financial year.

Thanks to pressure from the NMA, the NSW state government has agreed to keep the status quo on registered nurses in nursing homes until late 2015, while they consult with stakeholders.

To protect nursing home residents and the quality of care they receive into the future, the union has now launched a community campaign to keep a registered nurse on duty 24/7 in all nursing homes in NSW.

To find out more and to get involved, visit: http://www.nswnma.asn.au/get-involved/aged-care-nurses/.

[Susan Price is the Socialist Alliance candidate for Summer Hill in the NSW State Election.]

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