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Aged care royal commission: day one

“The hallmark of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable people and our elderly are often amongst our most physically, emotionally and financially vulnerable.”

These were some of the final words from commissioner Richard Tracey on the first day of the keenly anticipated Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in Adelaide this morning, with those gathered given a glimpse into what to expect over the next year.

Although proceedings were somewhat marred for some of the families and campaigners for the elderly – including Clive Spriggs, son of SA Senior of the Year and Oakden whistleblower Barb Spriggs – who were unceremoniously deposited in the outer spill rooms in favour of lawyers and heads of the peak bodies.

Prominent aged care advocate in attendance, Stewart Johnston, told Aged Care Insite that he and others, including Spriggs, were ushered to the front of the queue to enter the hearing by a security guard.

“We’re standing there, and this woman appears and says ‘you need to get to the back’," he said. “They said 'you need to get to the back, you’re not important, you're nothing important, I’ve spoken to the commissioners, and these people have been here first'.

“We were dumbfounded,” he said.

The opening of the hearing itself had less drama. Tracey directed Dr James Popple, the official secretary, to outline the letters of patent. Popple set the tone of proceedings by recognising the contribution of elder Australians to our nation and the need for the commission to uphold their dignity.

He reminded those gathered that as our population is ageing the community expects government to have the best policy and frameworks possible.

Tracey started by reaffirming the commission's “broad remit” which will include investigating young people with disabilities in the aged care system, those with dementia and the overarching need to examine “sub-standard care and systemic failures” within the system.

He also pointed to the commission's interest in the newly formed Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission and said the Royal Commission will follow “the new regime to form a judgment about its efficacy”.

In her address, commissioner Lynelle Briggs said it is extremely important to investigate current policy and practice in the sector in answer to the “rising torrent of concern that the system is faltering” and to “ensure all Australians have confidence that the system will serve them” when the time comes.

Briggs conceded that the commission has only “a short time with which to conduct our inquiry” but stressed that they will consult extensively with experts, researchers, government stakeholders, and of course the public and those affected by failures of the system. “We will give voice to them,” she said.

Addressing concerns of privacy and whistleblowing, Tracey made clear that although at this point the commission is only asking for submissions, it will, if need be, compel witnesses. He added that any confidentiality clauses in contracts of current or former employees will not exclude people from summons and that the commission would be “gravely concerned” if any provider or government told staff not to talk to the commission.

Furthermore, he stated the commission will afford protections to any whistleblowers and outlined penalties should any repercussions be felt by those who testify.

Assisting councils Peter Gray and Dr Timothy McEvoy laid out some of the finer details of the hearings to come as well as observations of submissions received at this time.

So far, 83 providers have responded, covering 2000 outlets. The “tenor” of responses include instances of elder abuse, medicine mismanagement, misuse of psychotropics, food safety, poor wound care leading to death and poor record keeping.

Campaigner Johnston was, on the whole, pleased with the opening hearing. Although he did have some concern for the “5,000 submissions received before the portal was up,” apparently going instead to the Department of Health.

“Somebody needs to be questioning those because anyone who would be able to knock out a significant submission straight away would be the ones that are giving the really good information,” Johnston said. “And how did they send it to the Department of Health? That concerns me."

Johnston also stressed the need for the roundtables and community engagement to happened as soon as possible, as he believes consulting with the current providers and peaks is not enough.

“I do hope they consult with people with lived experience,” he said. “LASA and all of that are in there talking to the commissioners on their own before the public are allowed into the hearing today. That’s the problem – there is a lack of trust from the community."

As for the immediate future, the first substantive hearing is slated for 11 February, lasting until the 18th. It will be an overview of the current system of operations and will also hear witness testimony from those receiving care.

Yet to be announced are the dates for any roundtables and community consultations, but all of those involved were at pains to stress that these are to be held in all of the major cities as well as regional areas where possible.

The commission’s interim report will be released on 31 October this year, with 30 April 2020 as the deadline for a final report and recommendations.

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