Council recently made an ‘in principle’ decision to withdraw from delivering aged and disability services. This will affect hundreds of people living in the Hepburn Shire and a number of staff who deliver services.

Council argues that its decision follows Commonwealth Government changes to aged and disability services.

The timing of the Council decision is open to question. Changes to disability services occurred sometime ago and changes to aged care services have not yet been finalised.

Currently the Commonwealth funds aged care services for older people living at home through two programs: the Home Support Program and Home Care Packages.

The Home Support Program provides entry level care like domestic cleaning, gardening and meals. Most people get up to an hour or two per week of support.

Home Care Packages are for people with more complex needs. Older people can get up to $52,000 of home care, including help with bathing and dressing, domestic support and allied health and nursing.

Council gets a grant for Home Support services from the Commonwealth and then tops that up with around $580,000 of its own money to provide additional services. Home Care Packages are allocated to individual users and they can choose services from available providers including Council.

The Commonwealth is proposing to merge the Home Support Program and Home Care Packages. But the detail on how this will be funded have not yet been finalised. There are already considerable criticisms of the Commonwealth’s approach, particularly for changes to the Home Support Program, and there may be policy revisions following the Federal election.

Bradley Thomas, Hepburn Shire CEO said, “Council has taken the view that it will not be able to (and probably should not) compete in the new service commissioning environment.”

The Council’s decision is not yet final and it may be premature. Council has announced that a final decision will be made in February 2022 once Council has run an expression of interest to find a new provider or providers for the services it currently runs. That process is underway.

If a suitable alternative is identified the Council has indicated it will notify the Federal and State Governments of its intention. These Governments will make the final decision about any provider that is appointed to replace Council services.

When the decision to withdraw aged care services was announced, there was considerable concern on social media and in letters and calls to Councillors.

The Council has set up an information page where people can submit questions. But it is not clear this approach is consistent with the Council’s own Community Engagement Policy.

Mr Thomas said, “Council has undertaken significant consultation on its Positive Ageing policy in recent years and most recently as part of the Hepburn Together project with strong feedback received by community for a focus to be on positive ageing.

As well as the feedback page via  Aged and disability services | Participate Hepburn and other mechanisms for consultation, Council has initiated a series of engagement processes with stakeholder groups which includes the funding bodies, clients and their families.   Staff consultation is also continuing an individual and group basis including the Australian Services Union.”

However, the Council Engagement policy has a set of criteria for low, medium and high levels of engagement with the community on Council decisions. The Council has decided on a low level engagement on its decision to withdraw from aged and disability care. That means it is simply informing the community of its decision.

In practice, the decision on whether or not to withdraw from aged and disability care appears to better correspond to the criteria for either medium or high levels of engagement with the community. According to the Council’s policy this suggest a “more in-depth engagement process where early rounds of engagement are used to unearth options and solutions, with following rounds refining options and preferences” this would include “surveys, workshops, pop ups, listening posts, information sessions and focus groups.” This has not occurred.

The Council has consulted on its positive ageing policy but there has been no meaningful community consultation on decision to withdraw from aged care services or the alternatives that may be on offer.

Mr Thomas says “It is really important to understand that the in-principle decision is not the final step at all, and Council is engaging significantly and will consider all feedback prior to a final decision being made in early 2022.  Council is not simply informing the community of the decision, and is genuine in its request for feedback.”

Given the significance of the decision to withdraw from aged and disability services and the widespread impact this decision would have, it is arguable that the Council should significantly strengthen its consultation and engagement strategy to implement at least the medium level engagement processes outlined in its own policy.