Above: National Seniors Australia CEO, Michael O’Neill.

By Stephen Easton

National Seniors Australia chief executive Michael O’Neill made the voice of older Australians heard today when he addressed the Productivity Commission’s public hearing at Parliament House in Canberra and called for the establishment of an aged care ombudsman.

National Seniors wants the proposed ombudsman to oversee the aged care system and act as an intermediary between consumers, government, staff and providers, with public recommendations reported to parliament.

The proposal also suggests that the ombudsman should be able to deploy ‘visitors’ to conduct unannounced inspections of residential care facilities.

Coming from feedback received by the organisation from its members, the idea appears to combine or replace some functions of the existing Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency and Aged Care Complaints Investigation Scheme, neither of which Mr O’Neill said inspires faith in the aged care system, at least among National Seniors members.

“At the moment, certainly based on the views we’ve had expressed to us at forums and through our own survey work, there’s not the necessary confidence there in the current system,” he said.

“We would say that people would get much more confidence if they can see that there is an ombudsman in place.”

Mr O’Neill said consumers were already familiar with the role of ombudsmen, and had a high level of trust in their independence, transparency and ability to conduct wide-ranging investigations.

“There are currently, in all governments, ombudsmen in place including ones for specific industries, like telecommunications and financial services.

“If it’s good enough for worrying about your telephone, and to worry about cheques and banking arrangements, then we would argue that for aged care, where you’ve got extremely vulnerable consumers, its entirely appropriate to have an aged care ombudsman.”

The Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency already conducts at least one unannounced visit of every government-funded aged care facility every year, sometimes more often, as part of its role monitoring facilities’ ongoing compliance with accreditation standards.

According to its website, the Accreditation Agency does not act on complaints about facilities, but will “carefully consider” any information it receives about residential aged care homes in planning its monitoring program.

The website goes on to suggest consumers should report complaints to the facility in question first, before escalating it to the Aged Care Complaints Investigation Scheme, which was created in 2007 to quickly and effectively investigate complaints, while avoiding any overlap with the Accreditation Agency.

But according to Mr O’Neill, many National Seniors members said facilities were commonly warned before accreditation visits.

“That’s certainly come loud and clear from our members, including folk who have worked in the industry, who are able to say first-hand the alerts are there in advance. 

“Then there’s a major cleanup the day before the visit occurs, and things go back to the way they were subsequently.”

Reporter Helen Lobato heard the same allegation earlier this year, made by former aged care caterer Caroline Sevcikova at a forum in Melbourne hosted by National Seniors to discuss the Productivity Commission’s draft report, Caring for Older Australians.

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