PHOTO: An essential service and more than just a meal. Norm (Pickles) Fulmer on duty for Meals on Wheels Coonamble.
MEAL providers who deliver regular meals to frail and aged residents around New South Wales say that a federal government “Funding Boost” announced by Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services, Richard Colbeck on 15 May actually amounts to a “funding freeze” and that changes to how that funding is distributed could force services to close.
“The Meals on Wheels network are feeling as though we have been abandoned by a Government that so recently were prepared to call us an essential service during the worst bush-fires in Australian history, the floods and the pandemic, and to rely crucially upon us in very difficult circumstances to deliver for our communities,” said Les Macdonald, CEO of Meals on Wheels NSW.
The changes are part of the federal government’s ongoing reforms to the aged care sector and were announced as part of a $7 million increase in funding.
From July 2023, a new Support at Home Program will combine the existing Home Support Programme, Home Care Packages, Short Term Restorative Care and residential respite programs.
“The recent changes to funding for meals services increase the minimum level of funding provided by the Australian Government under the Commonwealth Home Support Program (CHSP),” Minister Colbeck said.
“All meals providers in NSW who are funded less than $7.50 per meal will see an increase in their funding levels. No meals provider will have their funding reduced.”
However, the Meals on Wheels organisation in NSW say that they will continue to campaign against the changes, citing a failure to increase funding to make up for years of inadequate funding, and the proposed imposition of funding in arrears, rather than for each quarter in advance.
“In all other States the announcement of the $7.50 amounts to an increase in funding. In NSW it amounts to a funding freeze. Given that our services have received no growth funding in recent years this is leaving many services vulnerable to closure.”
“Funding in arrears, as is being proposed by the Government, will almost certainly send a majority of NSW services to the wall,” he said.
“They simply do not have the cash reserves to enable them to continue whilst funding is being received after the services are delivered.”
Local Meals on Wheels co-ordinator Julia Taylor, who with joint co-ordinator Lorna Lefebvre manage the service for Coonamble and Gulargambone district residents, says that costs per meal already exceed $7.50 – even with the generous support of around 60 local delivery volunteers – and that the funding makes no allowance for the administration costs associated with ensuring the service meets all necessary standards.
“There is a lot of compliance and when you add the pandemic to that, it adds to the complexity and the compliance requirements,” Mrs Taylor said.
“In 2022 it will be three years since our last funding review.”
“We are definitely concerned that payment in arrears would make it incredibly difficult to maintain our level of service.”
Mrs Taylor says that Meals on Wheels has always been part-funded by clients and with around 90% of clients being pensioners, their capacity to afford any price rise is very limited.
She also says that the demand – or output of meals – with the local service is highly variable.
“We have around 105 clients between Coonamble and Gulargambone,” Mrs Taylor said. “About half are regular users and others come in and out with sickness, the seasons and if family are around.”
“I hope they’ll keep the current funding system with block payments quarterly in advance, which provides certainty,” she said.
“We have a significant drop in outputs over the summer because people eat less or they go away to visit family and if we were paid in arrears based on outputs, it would make it untenable.
“Even the significant spike over winter wouldn’t make up the shortfall,” Mrs Taylor said.
“I’m really surprised the government is doing this during the pandemic, when meal deliveries are so essential.”
Minister Colbeck has said that Meals on Wheels providers will not see funding reduced but has not yet responded to the concerns expressed by Meals on Wheels NSW.
“The Government is in the process of consulting with CHSP providers on the design and implementation of this measure,” Mr Colbeck said.
“This consultation includes providers who deliver meals, and will consider the impact of the measure on providers of meals services.”