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Catholic Health Australia CEO Pat Garcia. Photo: Supplied

Keeping the faith: Catholic Health Chief on valuing our elders

At a time when the aged care industry is looking for answers to a number of seemingly unanswerable questions, Pat Garcia looks to the teachings of his faith for guidance.

Garcia believes that we could look to the example of Jesus and how he treated those less valued by society as a guide to how we approach aged care. At the moment, Garcia says, the elderly are the least valued people in our society.

The chief executive of Catholic Health Australia (CHA) since October 2019, Garcia comes to a sector that is in a state of turmoil, but if he seems unfazed by the challenges ahead, we could look to his CV for answers.

Garcia has been at the heart of state and federal Labor politics for most of the last decade, including a stint as a senior advisor in the department of prime minister and cabinet during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era. And most recently as the acting General Secretary of the Australian Labor Party’s NSW branch, steadying the ship in the wake of a cash donation scandal which saw the resignation of his predecessor.

The move to CHA – the largest non-government provider grouping of health, community and aged care services in Australia, encompassing 80 hospitals and around 83,300 employees across the health and aged care sectors – ticks a lot of boxes for Garcia.

“This seems to mix a whole bunch of things that I’m passionate about,” he tells Aged Care Insite.

“I’m quite heavily involved in the church. I was the Vice President of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

“I do go to mass. I went to a Catholic school. I’m still involved Vinnie’s now. So, how the church is going is something that really interests me, but I also believe in the services that governments provide to people. Two of the main ones that they provide is aged care and also hospital care.”

The philosophical principles of social justice can be traced back to early catholic scholars. They concern the poorest and most vulnerable in society and also the life and dignity of a person, and it is these ideas that guide Garcia’s approach to health policy.

“We often talk in Catholic health about the ministry of healing, that applies to both aged care and health care. Not many people really know what the ministry of healing is. One element is what we call radical inclusion. For Jesus it meant looking at the most socially excluded person and bringing that person to the centre of his world. In those days it was groups of people like lepers,” he says.

“We also want to bring the most excluded people to the centre of our world. And we look around at the people who are disadvantaged. Often today they are people from regional areas and so we provide a lot of regional aged care services, where a lot of other organisations might not be willing to do that because it is so unprofitable.”

Profit is a topic talked to death in aged care along with funding, but how do we create an aged care system that cares for shareholders and the elderly at the same time?

“The question is whether we believe aged care is a public good and I believe it is, much like we believe healthcare to be a public good. Now in healthcare for example, you have a whole bunch of public hospitals and they have to be supplemented by private institutions. In aged care, the funding effectively comes from the public and it’s done through private organisations mainly,” he says.

“But the real question for us is, is aged care a priority for the public? Do we really care? Now I think if you ask people, they would say ‘Absolutely we care’. But if you look at the top priorities of the public, in any polling, I think you’ll find that aged care doesn’t come up as an issue that’s top of mind.”

Keeping aged care in the minds of the public will be one of Catholic Health’s top properties under Garcia. He has been dismayed at the low level of attention the Royal Commission has garnered and he will be talking to the minister for aged care, Richard Colbeck, about a public campaign aimed at tackling ageism and bringing ageing to the centre of public discourse.

“It got a couple of days on the front pages and then it just disappeared. And when you think about the other Royal Commissions that have occurred over the last two to three years, they got more space in the newspapers than our Royal Commission is currently getting,” he says.

“And I still think that is reflective of the ageism that exists in society today. But in terms of its recommendation – we agree wholeheartedly with the recommendations which are being made by the royal commission. Do we think it goes far enough? Not at this point.”

And of course, like his peers at the various other peak bodies, Garcia thinks the way we fund the sector must change. Many of his members are struggling and making losses, he says.

According to CHA, one way to address some of the imbalances is for those Australians who can afford it to pay more.

Under their proposed model means testing will take into account the full value of a person’s home, and to achieve this CHA wants the interest rate for the current Pension Loan Scheme, which allows people to take out loans against the value of their homes, reduced.

“I think the Royal commission and the sector knows that the sort of investment that’s required into the sector is so significant that even Catholic Health Australia admits that there simply isn’t enough tax payer money to fund it; that you will need to find alternative sources of funds to properly fund it,” says Garcia.

“And unless the public very clearly indicate to the government that this is a priority for them … that requires the government to seriously look at investing in aged care, then I worry it’s going to be ignored. And I worry that the sector will continue to operate in an underfunded way.”

Catholic Health members will hope that having someone so familiar with the intricacies and machinations of the government and its vast bureaucracy will be best placed to advocate on their behalf. What they certainly have is someone who will bring the best teachings of the catholic church into practice.

“I would like to see, at the very least in the next two years before the federal election, some pretty significant commitments in the electoral platforms of the government and the labor party in aged care. And I want to see aged care continually talked about in the public discourse as an issue that needs to be resolved.

“We want to bring the most excluded people to the centre of our world,” he says.

“With ageism today, the public really doesn’t value elderly people in the way that they tend to value younger people. We want to bring them to the centre.”

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