Last night’s Federal Budget contained a surprise measure that should bring to a close the long-running industry campaign for a complaints investigation scheme that is independent of the department.
The Federal Government announced it was implementing an “independent complaints mechanism” by moving complaints handling from the Department of Social Services to the Aged Care Commissioner from 1 January 2016.
“Moving these powers to the Aged Care Commissioner will ensure this important safety net is more robust and independent,” said Assistant Minister for Social Services Mitch Fifield.
Alzheimer’s Australia said it welcomed the announcement. “This is a strong measure that will improve consumer protection and independent scrutiny,” said CEO Carol Bennett.
The government said the move to “simplifying the aged care complaints handling process” would bring savings of $2.8 million over four years.
However, seniors lobby the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association said it queried whether the Commissioner would have the sufficient resources to handle 4,000 complaints each year.
The separation of complaints investigation from the department has been a long-running issue in the sector.
In its response to the Budget, Catholic Health Australia noted it had been “long recognised that good governance in public administration requires the separation of the regulatory arms of government from the policy and funding arms.”
Indeed just over five years ago a review into the then Complaints Investigation Scheme by Merrilyn Walton, associate professor of medical education at the University of Sydney, called for an independent statutory authority.
Professor Walton’s review found that a body separate to the department, which primarily funded and regulated aged care, was necessary to remove concerns about the impartiality of decisions.
“The stakes are high for the complainants in a complaint investigation and when the same organisation is responsible for all the regulatory functions it lessens the will or capacity to admit failures and commit to improvements,” the Walton review said at the time.
Despite the widespread support for Walton’s key proposal, the then Minister for Ageing, Justine Elliot, ignored the report’s fundamental recommendation and instead announced an investment of $50 million to strengthen the existing scheme.