Senators' Statement - Home Care Package Crisis

Last month, I was in Townsville with the Labor Medicare Caucus Committee. We met with locals—and I'm sure Senator Macdonald will be interested in this issue—aged-care providers and Friends of Dementia to hear about their concerns for aged care and home care in regional Queensland and what's been happening under the Turnbull government.

I thank the member for Herbert, Cathy O'Toole, for hosting the Medicare Caucus Committee in Townsville. I'd also like to acknowledge my Labor colleagues Sharon Claydon and Dr Mike Freelander for the work they're doing in this space. I want to thank those I met in Townsville for sharing their stories and for being vocal about what the government's cuts to aged care actually mean on the ground. It's their stories and their conversations which are helping to change the way aged care is talked about in Australia.

Frankly, I don't blame people for being worried about aged care. The Liberals have dropped the ball on the Living Longer Living Better aged-care reforms that the former Labor government introduced in a bipartisan manner. Labor did the heavy lifting. The only thing those opposite had to do was implement that legislation, but it's been obvious that they've found it too difficult. On the whole, the Liberals have shown disinterest and inaction in this portfolio responsibility. We have now had three ministers for aged care and there's still no minister for ageing. There's still no-one at the cabinet table who is representing this important social issue for all Australians. Every single budget under the Liberals has seen a cut to aged care, and people are seeing the effects of those cuts locally. They completely bungled the changes to home care packages introduced last February. As a result, we've got over 105,000 older Australians waiting in limbo for home care. These people, their families and communities, the providers and the sector are fed up. They've had enough.

We've seen some action from those opposite in the last 18 months, and I want to give credit where credit is due. But a lot of the Liberals' recent action on aged care and ageing has been them pretending they've done a whole lot more than they've actually done. They've attempted to do some things. They've cheered themselves on and patted their own backs over the aged-care budget package. They were very proud indeed of their aged-care budget package. But that bubble has certainly burst, hasn't it, Mr Turnbull and Minister Wyatt? You didn't fool anyone. We all know that over the forward estimates there is not one cent extra for aged care. This is such an insult to the 105,000-plus older Australians waiting for home care. It's beyond insulting and it tells you everything you need to know about the priority that the Turnbull government gives to older Australians.

Data from the last quarter shows that there were 105,000 older Australians—almost 2,500 from my home state of Tasmania—waiting for home care. I note this figure is from December. We don't have any new figures, because the government is sitting on them. But I have it unofficially that the number has skyrocketed. The Department of Health gave a commitment to release the data two months after the period the data covers, so we should've seen the data for the March quarter in either late May or June.

Last month the minister tweeted that he wouldn't be releasing this data until August. Well, Minister, we are midway through the month and we still haven't seen it. Last month I questioned whether the minister was sitting on the data while he got his department to scratch names off the waiting list so that they could claim that it hasn't gotten worse in the last quarter. The minister's response in the Tasmanian Advocate on 27 July was:

I tasked the Department of Health to ensure that as many people as possible approved for home services are receiving some form of support. The report will be released once I have been assured of this.

It's just not good enough for the minister to sit on the latest home care package waitlist data until he's satisfied enough names have been scratched off the list so it doesn't look so bad for this government. Any delay is unacceptable and just goes to show how little the Turnbull government respects older Australians, their families and carers.

We need some honesty and we need transparency about what the real situation is within the waitlist. How are we supposed to have real reform, address the demand and fix the issues if the government keep hiding things and pretending they're doing all these great things? Vulnerable older Australians needs us to get this right, and we can't do this if those opposite can't be up-front about what is going on. What we're seeing from the growing home care waitlist crisis is the impact on other services and the broader community. We've got too many vulnerable older people having to go into acute care, prematurely going into residential aged care and, in more dire cases, actually dying while they're waiting for a home care package. This is not to mention the angst and stress placed on families. My office is still receiving calls on a weekly basis from families at wit's end. They don't know what else to do. My colleagues are forever sharing their stories. This is a real issue.

This brings me to the story of the local woman I was fortunate to meet when I was in Townsville last month. The Townsville woman's mother passed away while she waited for her level-4 home care package. Her mother was living with dementia and was receiving a level-4 home care package in New South Wales. When her husband died, she was moved to Queensland to be closer to her family, so she had to re-apply for a level-4 home care package. She had to re-apply for something that it already had been assessed that she needed. She had high-level needs which warranted that home care package level 4, and that didn't change once she crossed the border into Queensland. The whole process of having to re-apply for a My Aged Care package was incredibly stressful for her family. This woman's mother received an interim level-2 package which didn't meet the needs, and she, sadly, passed away while she waited for the level-4 home care package.

This was an extremely frustrating and devastating situation for her family—a situation becoming all too common right around the country. What was more upsetting for the family was that, four months after she had died, the family received a letter saying she would receive a My Aged Care package level 4. This is just plain wrong and, frankly, intolerable for the family. It's intolerable for our community. She shouldn't have to wait for months for something she was already eligible for.

I've said this before, but nothing has changed. The Turnbull government has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to aged care. The aged-care sector is not bleeding under the Turnbull government; it's haemorrhaging. There is a home care crisis unfolding under the Prime Minister and Minister Wyatt's noses, and the best they can do is shuffle money around to pretend they've given new money to aged care and sit on the latest home care waitlist data until the minister is satisfied enough names have been scratched off. It's just not good enough.

The Prime Minister and those opposite should be ashamed of themselves. This crisis will not be resolved until there is action from this government. We had the sector here in Parliament House yesterday, and they're still meeting here today, talking about the issues that are confronting the sector. Well, these issues around the wait list times are having an enormous impact on acute hospital care around this country, particularly in my home state. We know the Turnbull government has cut funding for hospitals around this country. This is an issue that must be addressed. It is far more financially beneficial for the Commonwealth government to have people receiving home care in their own homes rather than being in acute hospitals, putting extra stress on the state and territory budgets. It's time for action. This is the 21st century. This should not be happening in this country. It's a disgrace, and it's a very, very poor reflection on this Liberal government.