By Michael DiFabrizio

MILDURA Rural City Council has taken a step towards withdrawing from providing aged and disability care services.

Significant industry reforms kicking in from July next year will change the economics for local governments to remain providers, the council said.

A three-month consultation process will now be held with a view to transitioning away from delivering services when the reforms take effect.

It was expected a final decision by the council will be made in May.

Mildura Mayor Liam Wood said there would be no immediate changes to services delivered while the consultation takes place.

“This certainly isn’t a decision that has been taken lightly, but rather in the best interests of the valuable clients our teams have proudly served for many decades, our staff and our ratepayers,” Cr Wood said.

The Federal Government is replacing current aged care programs with a new model of care, known as Support at Home, whereby funding sits with clients, who then have choice of provider.

It follows the adoption of a similar model for disability clients when the NDIS was introduced in 2016, when council also opted against being a provider.

The council is contracted to provide services under the existing Commonwealth Home Support Program until the end of June next year, after which all clients will transition to Support at Home.

Mildura Council acting CEO Martin Hawson said a 2018 report by the Loddon Mallee Group of Councils had looked into whether local governments could continue as service providers under the new disability and aged care models.

He said it found councils were not likely to be competitive under the “totally different way of operating”.

“To be a competitive provider you need to be providing a service to a wide number of clients,” Mr Hawson said.

“We currently have between 1200 and 1300 clients at any given time; to make the model viable, you need to be far in excess of that.

“It’s estimated you’re looking at providing a service to a catchment of over 250,000 to give you economies of scale … so unless you were going to become a regional provider, then it would make all the cost structures and cost models quite difficult.”

The council has been providing aged care services for more than 30 years, with about 80 staff currently working to deliver its programs.

Mildura Council community services manager Cheree Dukes said there were already many vacancies for support workers in the region, expressing confidence staff would be able to find new roles.

Ms Dukes said the council would also help staff upskill for new opportunities.

“There will well and truly be jobs for every single one of our staff who choose to transition to a different provider − and more,” she said.

The council said clients would continue to receive care up to the last day the existing contract and assistance would be given to help the transition to the new model.

Mr Hawson expressed confidence private providers would be ready to fill the void by July next year.

“Providers have been coming to us to find out where we’re at,” he said.

“I think this will open up those discussions to happen in earnest … there are providers now providing services through aged care packages and other brokerage services out there, so we’re quietly confident there will be a number of providers that come into town that are able to do this.

“The other safety net is, if that’s not the case, then we’ve got that time span to look at other options.”

Mr Hawson said transition costs would mean the budget wouldn’t see savings arising from the decision in the initial two years, but future savings could be diverted to allow council to support other aged care initiatives.

The majority of the funding for the existing services comes from the Federal Government, while some also comes from the Victorian Government.

“Over time, certainly our obligation to the aged care sector is not going to be diminished,” Mr Hawson said.

“Councillors have made this very clear, that they do value our aged care and aged community, and they want to make sure other services are available, in terms of services, ageing well options, social support, supporting our seniors groups and so forth.”

Cr Wood said continuing to provide aged care services under the new model would place a burden on the budget.

“Probably the key one is there won’t be the increased pressure on ratepayers that there would be if we continued on this model,” he said.