By Keryn Curtis
Residential aged care providers remain angry and indignant, while a consultant is proceeding with legal action against the ABC’s flagship evening current affairs program, The 7.30 Report, following a report aired on the program last Thursday.
The program reported claims made by anonymous Commonwealth nursing officer ‘whistle-blowers’, alleging evidence of large scale rorting of government money on the part of aged care providers. [see transcript of story].
The 7.30 Report segment, which was previewed on ABC radio’s PM program earlier that evening, featured the voices of women who say they are nurses whose job it is to audit and validate aged care resident funding claims under the Aged Care Funding Instrument (ACFI). They allege not only ‘deliberate over-claiming’ under the system by ‘corrupt’ providers, but that their managers at the Department of Health and Ageing didn’t want to know about the claiming irregularities, asking them to “look the other way, tick it all, let it go through.”
Aged care provider peak associations have responded with anger, umbrage and disappointment, defending the ethics and professionalism of their members and denying any wide-scale inappropriate behaviour.
Call for evidence
Since the initial response, Aged and Community Services Australia (ACSA) CEO, Adjunct Professor John Kelly, has written to the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing – who was interviewed on the program – calling on the government to provide evidence of this reported widespread ‘rorting’ and, if it is found, to explain why the Government has not undertaken inquiries into it – action that he says ACSA would certainly support.
“The claims made in the program are unsubstantiated and you would not be surprised that there is a groundswell of anger from aged care providers around these “rorting” claims. The unsubstantiated allegations and the unfair media attention that is being paid to this leads, I suggest, to a loss of public confidence in aged care,” the letter says.
“Perhaps more importantly, recent commentary impacts adversely on staff employed in aged care who are expressing dismay and disappointment about the negativity associated with the implied “rorting” activity.
Speaking later, Prof Kelly said he was deeply concerned that the incident had led to a significant loss of confidence among providers, in the Government’s commitment to aged care and the reform process.
“The vast majority of our aged care providers are responsible and ethical in the way they run their aged care services, which in the mission-based sector, look after those most disadvantaged in Australia.
“It will be difficult now to convince members that the Minister hasn’t used up all his credit points. After a really positive relationship with this Minister, in the space of the last 12 or 13 weeks, our members feel let down; and that he’s done little to support the provider component of the sector,” he said.
Angry and frustrated
From the 35 minute recorded interview he gave for the program, a total of 53 words spoken by CEO of Leading Age Services Australia (LASA), Gerard Mansour, made it to air. Mr Mansour says he is angry and frustrated with the story which he believes was not only unbalanced but failed to investigate and comprehend the way the ACFI system works.
“I categorically reject the hypothesis that there is an incentive to rort the system. I said that in the interview but it didn’t run in the piece.
“We operate in one of the most highly regulated industries in Australia. Our aged care homes have one of the most stringent quality systems in the world.
“Departmental officers cross-check the funding claims of aged care providers. There is also significant evidence required by providers to substantiate each and every claim. They work on a sample and if they see any variation or irregularity of any kind, any piece of documentation missing or incorrect, then they can go and check the claims of every single one,” said Mr Mansour.
“There is no incentive and, what’s more, there’s a penalty if you do make an incorrect claim, however inadvertently, and you have to pay the whole lot back. And then you lose the right to self-assessment.
“With the changes coming in with the Living Longer. Living Better reforms, they have a third penalty where, if you are overtly inappropriately claiming, you can be sanctioned, so there’s an enormous weight of penalties,” he said.
“Aged providers claim funds so they can provide quality care to our residents. The real issue facing aged care is that funding levels do not properly match the care needs of frail older Australians.” Mr Mansour said.
Above: Recorded response from Nick Heywood-Smith
The other element from the report that has drawn an angry response is the story’s portrayal of ACFI consultants who work to maximise the funding levels of residents in an aged care facility.
The program singled out South Australian consultancy, Wellness & Lifestyles Australia, in particular, airing its advertising claims which promise to maximise ACFI funding for aged care providers.
Wellness & Lifestyles Australia’s Chief Executive Officer, Nicholas Heywood-Smith, was interviewed on the program, representing and defending the work his company does in this area.
Heywood-Smith has now initiated legal action against the ABC for defamation. On Monday, Mr Heywood-Smith’s lawyers sent a letter to the ABC, accusing the program of false imputations, leading to damage of their client’s professional reputation and ‘unfair representation’ on the program.
The letter concludes: “You will no doubt give consideration to a response pursuant to s.15 of the Act [Defamation Act]. Inter alia, a full apology broadcast in a future edition of the 7.30 Report will be required. Mr Heywood-Smith necessarily would have to approve its contents. […] We invite you to remove the story from your website and any archive thereof forthwith.”
The story remains on the ABC website for now but Nick Heywood-Smith has taken his own swift action to address the issue, sending emails to clients and posting written and recorded video responses on the W&L Services website.
The email to clients reads:
“We would like to start by thanking all of our clients, suppliers […] who have shown their support for W&L and called us personally to see if we were okay. The segment was factually incorrect, and we have sent a concerns notice to the ABC today to proceed our legal action.
“Following last Thursday night’s broadcast, I have made a video-response and placed it on both websites – W&L Consultancy (click here) and W&L Services (click here). Our General Manager and National Consultancy Manager have also responded.[…]”
In the program, Minister Butler said he had asked for detailed advice about the full range of options available, saying that, “where there was a case of fraud, obviously it would be incumbent upon us to refer that to the authorities.”
The Minister’s office has confirmed there is nothing further to add to this issue as this stage.
The CEO of consumer association, COTA, Ian Yates, says he believes the 7.30 report confused the issue of ‘rorting’ with reports concerning recent changes made to elements of the funding instrument.”
“The ‘rorting’ argument – which may be true in a small number of cases and DOHA pursues these matters as vigilantly as they can – has been conflated with the other separate issue: that there are elements of the ACFI claiming process that are flawed and imperfect and need to be tightened up and that’s what the July 1 ACFI review and adjustment was about,” said Mr Yates.
“But that’s not an issue of rorting which is what the consultants have been accused of – and which they weren’t doing. It’s all mixed up.
“We do need to monitor and review the funding and that’s why the Minister has agreed to an ACFI monitoring group, which had its first meeting last week,” said Mr Yates.