Co-op model would meet challenges facing elderly care in rural Australia, says expert

Phliip Schmall, a former care CEO, is planning a workshop on the mutual model for a sector summit next month

With elderly health services facing the pressure of meeting demand in rural and remote parts of Australia, a former care boss is calling for co-op and mutual solutions.

Philip Schmaal, who was chief executive of South Australian care provider Barossa Village for ten years, is now a member of the chairs’ forum of the Australia’s Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals (BCCM).

Also chair of the Barossa Community Co-operative Store, a retail co-op formed in 1944 that has over 18,000 members, he is preparing a workshop on mutual care services for the Aged & Community Services Australia National Summit in Cairns on 12 September.

He told Australian Ageing Agenda magazine: “The co-operative model is somewhere between a not-for-profit and a commercial for-profit, where organisations remain independent yet come together to make something bigger and provide support and services back to the members.

“In the aged care context member organisations would retain the advantages of being autonomous and would remain independently owned by their local communities but would also further benefit from being part of a larger co-operative structure whereby the costs of services could be shared and absorbed across a larger base.”

Mr Schmaal said his workshop at the summit would focus on how a national aged care co-op could be structured to ensure smaller communities continued to benefit from locally owned providers.

BCCM policy officer Anthony Taylor said the organisation is already working with community groups to develop co-operatives that can deliver social care in a sustainable way.

He added: “Australia is a large country with many thin markets for care delivery, so delivering high quality care is difficult for the existing providers. Locally owned co-operatives, with support from the co-operative movement, can develop viable alternative care models.

“The co-operative model is great for facilitating community investment, so alongside supporting particular projects the BCCM has been working to develop free online resources and tools to guide community investment through co-operatives.”

Mr Taylor said there was already “a lot of movement” in several areas, including primary health services. He gave the example of National Health Co-operative, a consumer-owned provider that started from a need for more bulk billing clinics in Canberra.

“It is now expanding to surrounding regional towns,” said Mr Taylor, “and the model is transferrable to other parts of Australia if the community wants it.”

There are also co-op home care services for remote or disadvantaged communities, he added, along with urban examples which could be transferred, such as The Cooperative Life.

Housing co-ops are providing retirement living in regional areas, said Mr Taylor.

There is also a strong Aboriginal-controlled health and care services sector, which provide services in many disadvantaged rural communities, such as the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation. The BCCM is advocating for better recognition of Aboriginal co-ops in government policy.

Mr Taylor added: “Disability services in Australia are moving to a model that is intended to increase individual consumer choice and control.

“Through a co-operative, consumers can pool their individual budgets to ensure they get the services they need; this will be important in rural areas where there is a ‘thin market’ of consumers.”

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