The federal government has accepted all six of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety’s recommendations for aged care’s responses to COVID-19.

The government will invest $132.2 million on a raft of measures related to the recommendations, including $63.3 million for mental and allied health support, $57.8 million for infection prevention and control training, and $11.1 million for a new Serious Incident Response Scheme.

This additional spending brings the total amount spent reinforcing the sector in the face of COVID-19 to $1.7 billion.

“While we hope there won’t be further COVID-19 outbreaks in aged care facilities or in home care, if it does happen, key learnings will inform the future work of the Aged Care Advisory Group (ACAG) and be shared with the aged care sector,” Minister for Aged Care Senator Richard Colbeck said.

“Wherever there are high rates of community transmission, the risk to older people and particularly those in residential aged care increases as demonstrated in Victoria and South Australia. It is a reminder of the need to be vigilant.”

“Residents have been affected by visitor restrictions, staffing pressures and operational changes,” the Minister said.

The government has also provided an update on its progress in implementing the recommendations, itself a recommendation of the royal commission, which we summarise below.

Recommendation 1 – The Australian Government should report to Parliament by no later than 1 December 2020 on the implementation of these recommendations. 

On 30 November 2020, the government tabled in parliament notes on its progress with implementation of the royal commission’s recommendations.

Recommendation 2 – The Australian Government should immediately fund providers that apply for funding to ensure there are adequate staff available to allow continued visits to people living in residential aged care by their families and friends.

The government has put $217.6 million towards supporting providers with COVID-19 related costs, including supporting visiting arrangements.

On 14 October 2020, the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians Richard Colbeck wrote to aged care providers outlining the government’s expectations with regard to visitors.

Minister Colbeck said providers must ensure that aged care residents are not isolated from their loved ones when there is an outbreak or heightened risk of an outbreak. “The mental and emotional toll this takes is too high a price to pay,” Mr Colbeck said in a statement.

Aged care providers will be required to report on all COVID-19 sources of revenue they have received, and how additional expenditures have been incurred, including labour, extra staff, resident support, communication, visitation arrangements, infection control, and waste management.

The Victorian Aged Care Response Centre has filled 56 positions for Residential Aged Care Visitation Assistants to support visits between residents and their loved ones.

The government has released a three-tier guidance plan to help aged care providers respond to escalating or de-escalating COVID-19 threats in their local community, including visiting guidelines. 

The government has also created a Serious Incident Response Scheme which will commence on 1 April 2021, and has provided increased advocacy support with the Older Persons COVID-19 Support Line.

Recommendation 3 – The Australian Government should urgently create Medicare Benefits Schedule items to increase the provision of allied health services, including mental health services, to people in aged care during the pandemic. Any barriers, whether real or perceived, to allied health professionals being able to enter residential aged care facilities should be removed unless justified on genuine public health grounds.

The government has invested $63.3 million to support the mental and physical health of residents of aged care facilities.

From 10 December 2020 until 30 June 2022, the government will allow aged care residents up to 20 individual psychological services where their general practitioner or psychiatrist determines they would benefit from additional support.

Aged care residents will be able to receive twice the number of the subsidised allied health services than they can currently access, including services from physiotherapists, occupational therapists and exercise physiologists. 

In aged care homes where there have been COVID-19 outbreaks or periods of extended lockdown, group allied health sessions will be covered to help with the care of residents.

The additional allied health services will be commissioned by Primary Health Networks (PHNs), and will initially be targeted at Victoria, Tasmania, and in New South Wales, Northern and South Western Sydney, the Nepean the Blue Mountains, and the Hunter New England and Central Coast areas.

Recommendation 4 – The Australian Government should establish a national aged care plan for COVID-19 through the National Cabinet in consultation with the aged care sector.

The Updated National COVID-19 Aged Care Plan (7th Edition) was endorsed by the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee (AHPPC) and tabled at National Cabinet on 13 November 2020. 

The AHPPC’s Aged Care Advisory Group has been made permanent – another recommendation of the royal commission.

The commonwealth has commissioned a national review of outbreak management, with the aim of identifying critical success factors.

The review is expected to be completed by the end of March 2021.

Recommendation 5 – All residential aged care homes should have one or more trained infection control officers as a condition of accreditation. The training requirements for these officers should be set by the aged care advisory body we propose.

The government has provided additional funding to help aged care providers engage an Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) lead. 

Residential aged care providers will have to demonstrate they have an IPC Lead as a condition of their accreditation.

Recommendation 6 – The Australian Government should arrange with the States and Territories to deploy accredited infection prevention and control experts into residential aged care homes to provide training, assist with the preparation of outbreak management plans and assist with outbreaks.

The commonwealth is working with the states to ensure high quality, face-to-face IPC training is being delivered to the sector. 

“This investment directly addresses issues raised by the Aged Care Royal Commission and will improve and support the health and wellbeing of aged care residents,” said Minister for Health Greg Hunt.

The Minister for Aged Care Richard Colbeck said, “The Government is working closely with aged care providers and all states and territories to ensure the ongoing safety and care of senior Australians.”

The royal commission will hand down its final report in February 2021. With 124 proposals already in discussion, the final report is likely to make significant recommendations further to these six. The government might have accepted these recommendations today, but whether they will accept all the royal commission’s broader recommendations next year remains to be seen.

Image: Vlada Maestro, iStock.

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