Meet New Zealand’s first aged care commissioner – a nurse at the helm of a $1.6 billion business

Carolyn Cooper was the Managing Director of Bupa Villages & Aged Care NZ. Photo / Provided

A nurse who ran a huge business of nursing homes and retirement villages has been appointed as New Zealand’s first aged care commissioner and tasked by the government to ‘lead much-needed systematic change in the sector’.

Carolyn Cooper has stepped down as managing director of Bupa Villages & Aged Care NZ, which has around $1.6 billion in assets in Aotearoa, to take on the new watchdog role for a five-year term, at starting next month.

She has also served on the board of the Aged Care Association, which represents most care home owners and operators and has in the past criticized the Labor Government’s decision to create an Aged Care Commissioner as ” another layer of bureaucracy doubling on already rigorous auditing and reporting”. “.

She told the Herald that the association’s concerns had eased as it became clear how the role would work with other regulators. However, her industry ties wouldn’t mean she lacked teeth as the new watchdog, she said.

“I have a very broad background in healthcare. I understand how DHBs work, I understand how other parts of the industry work. And I’m there for the elderly, that’s my main thing – m ensuring their rights, protection and access to health care.

“I have lived experience in the area – my mother is in a care home – so I understand what it is to be a member of the family. There is a lot for me other than my experience with Bupa.”

Senior Citizens and Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall said Cooper had a career spanning more than 40 years in all parts of the health service, primarily in the public hospital system and including governance roles, management and clinical leadership.

His appointment was made by the Department of Health with input from the Health and Disability Commissioner, Verrall said, “a position centered entirely on patients’ rights”.

“The majority of the sector is private, so anyone with experience in the sector would have worked in the private sector at some point…he’s someone who has a very practical knowledge of how you solve quality issues health care.”

The position would be part of the Health and Disability Commission and would investigate complaints about aged care, home care, needs assessment and palliative care.

Verrall said there would be mechanisms to manage potential conflicts of interest. She also wants Cooper to investigate systemic issues in elder care and advocate for improvements.

Neither Verrall nor Cooper said what they thought were those issues, with Cooper planning to consult with the elderly first (last October, while still in Bupa, she said the biggest challenges of sector were the lack of government funding and the shortage of manpower, which are linked: “We would pay our staff more if we had more funding”).

Verrall said the vast majority of older people receive high-quality care, but several reports have raised issues including a complex complaints process, people fearing repercussions if they raise issues and examples of poor care.

“[Substandard care] is deeply disturbing to me. And I saw examples of that when I was a doctor and cared for the elderly at Wellington Hospital.”

Dr Ayesha Verrall, Associate Minister for Seniors and Health, says the new watchdog will be "defend the rights of our most vulnerable".  Photo/Mark Mitchell
Dr Ayesha Verrall, Associate Minister for Seniors and Health, said the new watchdog will “stand up for the rights of our most vulnerable”. Photo/Mark Mitchell

Prior to the 2017 election, the Labor Party promised a new aged care watchdog would be provided in its first budget, but the money ($8 million over four years) was only promised. in the 2021 budget.

Groups including unions representing nurses and carers and Gray Power have been pushing for such a stance for years, saying the current oversight of a sector that cares for 36,000 of New Zealand’s most vulnerable is ineffective and split between different groups.

Australia recently set up an independent commission on the quality and safety of care for the elderly, following findings of widespread poor quality of nursing home care.

The NZ Aged Care Association said it hoped the new commissioner would be the voice of a sector which is experiencing a severe shortage of nurses worsened since the Covid-19 border closures and increased competition for nurses nationally , with much higher salary offered in DHBs due to which according to the association it is a significant underfunding from the government.

Other groups, including the NZ Nurses Organization, which represents both nurses and carers in elderly care, have warned that the existing workforce is being stretched to the point of exhaustion and burnout, and that the government must act urgently on measures, including introducing mandatory staff ratios. to residents (currently there are only guidelines).

The spike in Omicron cases will add to current pressures on elderly care. Nursing homes accounted for most Covid-19 deaths in previous outbreaks, and Waitematā DHB chair Judy McGregor called an aged care commissioner shortly after nursing home patients died from West Auckland after they were transferred to hospital, saying Covid had ‘critically exposed the weaknesses in our regulations and oversight systems surrounding elderly care’.

About Antoine L. Cassell

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