A spotlight on the Newmarch House tragedy: Where to next?

14th May 2020

The tragic number of deaths at Newmarch House exposes all that is wrong with Australia’s residential aged care system and why the Australian government must undertake urgent reform to better protect our vulnerable aged care residents. 

The government needs to go further than the Federal Opposition’s calls for the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety to review the tragedy that has unfolded at Newmarch House since it was revealed that a staff member had worked six shifts while infected with COVID-19. We need a dedicated inquiry. 

My concern with leaving an inquiry solely to the Royal Commission is not because the Royal Commission is not capable of dealing with the issues that have arisen, but because it is unclear that the government is listening to, or will respond to, the Commission’s findings.

There are a number of reasons for my scepticism. One is that the government voted down critical amendments to the Aged Care Legislation Amendment (New Commissioner Functions) Bill 2019 which were about delivering improved transparency and accountability around finances, staffing ratios and complaints in aged care homes. The government chose not to act despite the horror stories that had been coming out of the Commission for a year and the release of the Commission’s damning interim report, tabled in parliament on 31 October 2019.

It is scandalous that – despite the rising number of deaths at Newmarch House – both sick and healthy residents were locked in. Why weren’t the critically-ill residents transferred to hospital and those who were not infected with COVID-19 moved elsewhere?

State health officials publicly said other options are available. But I have heard that a family’s request to move their loved one out of the facility was declined and the resident subsequently contracted COVID-19 and has died. 

There are also reports that residents did not receive treatment from doctors or registered nurses for days. This is not surprising; many aged care facilities operate with inadequate staffing levels, and with staff who are either unqualified or inadequately trained to care for residents with health problems. The government has thrown money at the sector via a ‘no strings attached’ COVID-19 rescue package – with no public information about how the figure requested was arrived at, nor how the providers are expected to spend it. 
The rampant, nationwide failures in governance, accountability, policy and the regulatory framework of aged care are laid bare in the Newmarch House tragedy. And the underlying cause is the Aged Care Act 1997 (Cth), whose provisions prefer the interests of providers over those of residents and their families. The Act promotes the privatisation of services – allowing profits to prevail over quality of care.

Newmarch House residents and their families deserve a dedicated inquiry. They and the broader Australian community deserve a new Aged Care Act which delivers proper regulation, independent complaints investigation, provider accountability, public performance reporting and appropriate staffing for better quality of care. 

Catherine Henry is a well-known and highly respected health and aged care lawyer with more than 30 years’ experience in this specialist field of law. Catherine is in demand as a media commentator on legal issues and is regularly approached for interviews on local and regional radio on issues involving health law and on aged care reform. She regularly undertakes community legal work, both for individuals and groups, and has been involved in several important community campaigns.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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Tags: Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety COVID-19 Residential aged care facilities Catherine Henry