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Uber but for government money

May 27, 2020 • 16m 09s

How a private company won millions in government funding for an aged-care app with “no duty of care”.

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Uber but for government money

232 • May 27, 2020

Uber but for government money

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

A multi-million dollar contract for an app that places aged-care workers in nursing homes has triggered concerns about quality and access.

The government money favours one private company, which says it has “no duty of care” for the work it provides.

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on the limited tender that won big for an app called Mable.

--

RUBY:

Rick, what is Mabel and what does it do?

RICK:

So Mable’s an app that connects aged care providers with freelance workers to fill holes in staffing, essentially.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Mable enables people to connect directly with thousands of support workers across Australia.

RICK:

Payment is made through the app and Mabel takes. Ordinarily, they take a 10 percent commission.

Archival tape -- promotion:

It lets you find and choose people offering the support that you want.

RICK:

They're not a direct employer of support workers or nurses, though it's really a lot like Uber or the other kind of gig-economy style platforms.

Archival tape -- promotion:

We’re online, so it’s easy and affordable, plus you can use your home-care package. Find your people at Mable.com.au

RICK:

It specializes in government-funded programs, so if you're in a nursing home and you need a support worker to come and look after you, you can jump onto Mable, do a search for your area, and there's a whole bunch of people that come up - they've got a range of qualifications and skills and maybe registered nurses or assistants in nursing or what we call care workers, and you can kind of filter them and look through the ones that you think best match what you need.

And essentially, the support worker on that platform sets their own rate. Yet they're working privately, if they're working for a nursing home is slightly different because the nursing home would be the one paying. But, you know, you can look at the one that you can afford and if they're available, away you go. And when the payments are done and completed, it gets kind of unlocked through Mable, and then the support worker gets paid at the other end, usually within a couple of days, although it can take longer.

But the app explicitly states in its terms that any person hired through its platform is quote-unquote “not a partner, employee, independent contractor or agent of the company”. And you know, they also go on to say that they've got no and they use this phrase duty of care for the quality of its workforce or liability for the care provided.

RUBY:

Right. And so the reason you’ve been looking into Mabel is because of a government contract they’ve been awarded. Can you tell me about that?

RICK:

That's right. In the midst of this Coronavirus pandemic, the federal government awarded a 5.77 million dollar contract to Mable. And it was for a surge workforce in nursing homes affected by Covid-19. And it's valid until the end of June. So essentially, it's a three month contract. And, you know, in a memo that was sent out to nursing home providers in April, the Department of Health announced that it would pay the wage costs for any crisis workers employed through Mable for four weeks.

And it does not appear that the government would subsidize the same kinds of workers who were not employed through this app. So the deal was done with Mabel and only Mabel, and it went out as a limited tender, which the government can do from time to time under certain grounds. You know, if it's a national security issue or in this case it was to protect human health. And that means it's exempt from the Commonwealth's own procurement rules.

RUBY:

So a limited tender is somewhat unusual? What does it mean in practice?

RICK:

Look, normally with the government contracts, they've got to go through a full tender, because people - taxpayers - rightfully have expectations about the fact that the government tests the quality of the people who are applying for the kind of work that the government wants them to do. So usually there's a full on competition and they select the best one.

Under a limited tender because they've got these certain exemptions for, in this case, protection of public health, those rules go out the window. So there are exemptions in this contract, that means that it is not subject to ordinary value for money checks, which is part of the rules, nor - and I'm again quoting from the rules - “nor is it subject to accountability and transparency provisions, And it's also not captured by rules governing efficient, effective, economical and ethical procurement.”

That's usually the case with this kind of limited tender. I did ask the Department of Health, and they confirmed that that was the case and that the contract is exempt from all of those rules and also cannot be judicially reviewed under this new legislation that was brought in in 2018, that essentially allows more of these types of contracts to be reviewed by the federal court or the federal circuit court if they're not exempt. But this one is. And so you can't even challenge it in the legal system.

RUBY:

Mmhmm. And what is the biggest concern with Mable and this multi-million dollar contract that it's received?

RICK:

It's a twofold concern. The first is quality. Mable states that it has no control over and is not responsible for the acts or omissions of any users on or off its site. So, you know, they're a pool of people who say they have the qualifications that they say, but in a really difficult area to regulate, in an area where people do not have the same capacity to make decisions that you or I might if we're getting in Uber, for example. That's a real key concern. You know, the app gives no warranty regarding the quality of care. It's not responsible for the accuracy or reliability of any information provided by someone you hire through it. And it takes no responsibility for anything, really. It's just left in the lap of the gods.

So, you know, Mable actually says in its terms, we do our best to check the qualifications certainly of registered nurses and they require copies of TAFE qualifications to be uploaded if you're a care worker, which is a lower level worker than a nurse. But they do say that if you're hiring someone, you should check all that stuff yourself because we can't be held responsible if we get it wrong.

And then there's the question about access. You know, the government went to Mable and only to Mable. And it's not clear that the app has the number of registered users in all of the regions around the country where a nursing home might need to access them. So the government’s essentially put all its eggs in one privately owned for-profit basket, and they're hoping that that's enough.

So, for example, if you're a nursing home operator in a regional area and you jump onto maybe because the government is paying the wages through Mabel and you jump on there and you can't find a support worker that, you know, is high enough quality or is even available, well, then what do you do in the middle of this crisis?

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Rick, we're talking about this app, Mable, which has won a big government contract to provide emergency staffing to nursing homes. Who owns Mabel?

RICK:

Mable's team is really well connected. So the company is chaired by Jamie Odell, who's the former managing director of the beverage giant Fosters Group and also the former longtime chief executive of poker machine company Aristocrat.
The app itself, the platform, it was co-founded in 2014 by the former Bankers Trust partner Peter Scutt and investment banker Tony Karara and accounts among its backers, the former Packer family investment vehicle Allison Capital, which owns a 10 million dollar stake.

In July 2017, the then aged care minister, Ken Wyatt, officially opened the company's expanded headquarters, saying that it reflected the then Turnbull government's vision of individual choice and control in a consumer-driven market. Now, Wyatt was joined at that launch by Ian Yates, who is the chief executive of the Council on the Ageing, COTA, which is a peak consumer advocacy body for older Australians using and navigating aged care. Now, Yates is a big supporter of Mable.

Archival tape -- Ian Yates:

And frankly, it was an important disruptor of the essential cookie-cutter approach to aged care that we've had for far too long...

RICK:

He's also a part of this small group that's been advising the Department of Health on aged care during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Archival tape -- Ian Yates:

People have people who come and do classic care and support services. Someone might take someone out on social outings. There's a whole variety of things that someone might want, someone who can speak their language, someone might want someone who can play chess...

RICK:

And Yates confirmed to me that the Council on the Ageing is a shareholder in Mable. But he said the stake was only about 2 percent when it was given to them and was granted in lieu of consultancy fees, which means essentially that they were providing advice - Ian Yates was providing advice on the setup of Mable - and they were given these shares because Mable didn't pay them any cash. Now Yates said they're currently not worth anything, and nor was he involved - and the Department of Health confirmed this - nor was he involved in any discussions over the recent contracts. But I guess the point we're making here is that these are all people who know who to call if they want to put their names in front of decision makers if there was a big pot of money going around.

RUBY:

Is this a bigger trend in aged care? The segue into private and for profit solutions paid for by government.

RICK:

That's kind of been the problem over the last two decades, really. And you know, we've got a royal commission into aged care quality and safety at the moment, and it has been searing about this precise issue, most notably in its interim report, which was handed down in October last year.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Well it’s been called a shocking tale of neglect as the interim findings of the Royal Commission into aged care were released today - the report was handed down just a few minutes ago - and it claims that we have been diminished as a nation.

RICK:

And the commission said, you know, literally word for word: it is a myth that aged care is an effective, consumer driven market.

Archival tape -- reporter:

It slams the idea that aged care can be treated as a market, and it zeroes in on some of the biggest tragedies seen so far in an inquiry that’s only part way through.

RICK:

We've had all these ideas right, about, oh, aged care can be beautiful and brilliant if we just unshackle it from all of this regulation and we bring in all of this private investment and then people can just go off and make their own choices.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Inhumane, unjustified subduing of patients, and care is a lottery, people dying as they wait - it really is hard to imagine how the royal commissioners could have been more scathing of a system they say is unkind and uncaring to older Australians...

RICK:

And the royal commission, crucially, I think, was saying if you believe that, then you are doing damage, because that is only true for a very small percentage of people in the market.

Archival tape -- unknown:

This is an absolutely brutal critique of our aged care system - the cruelty and the neglect is being experienced right around the country...

RICK:

They said it was time for a reality check. I'm quoting from the report here, they said “the aged care sector prides itself in being an industry and it behaves like one.” Because you’ve got to remember, 80 per cent of the industry's funding comes directly from government. Essentially, the commission were saying that the Australian taxpayers have every right to expect that a sector so heavily funded by them should be open and fully accountable in the public and seen as a service to them. And it's this question of the lack of fundamental transparency, which was the words the commission used, and, you know, while it does appear to be heavily regulated, they heard evidence that it is unfit for purpose and does not adequately deter poor practices.

So there's been this momentum we'd be moving towards this increasingly fractured, increasingly privatised, increasingly for profit sector. And yet along the way, we've lost sight of the fact that this isn't about money - this is about people who need care at a point in their life when they are...vulnerable’s a terrible word, but when they are most in need of getting proper, safe care.

RUBY:

What about Mabel? What happens with that contract now?

RICK:

Well, the Department of Health said that the 5.77 million dollar contract was paid directly to Mable on the basis that they essentially didn't want approved nursing home providers to have to wait to get any money back. So the money was given to Mable, and if any provide aid needed some staff for four weeks, the wages bill would be paid and they'd have the money they'd pay them straight away.

So far, the Mable platform has only been used under this arrangement by two providers, and that includes Newmarch House, where tragically last week a 93 year old resident there became the 19th person to die from Coronavirus during that cluster that we saw.

And the Department of Health told me that any money left in the contract on the 30th of June, which is when it's meant to end… they say the money will go back to the government. And that's you know, that's fine. We'll wait and see on that front. But that's not really the issue.

I mean, for two decades now and the royal commission really pinged them - the government - on this, you know, no one in government at any level over the last two decades has really thought about where marketization of this sector is taking us. It's almost like they outsource their thinking to the free market time and time and time again, thinking that things would change and they never have. And we still haven't got that balance right.

And, you know, I wrote last year about how they wanted to privatize the assessment teams, which is the one part of the aged care system that basically works. And they wanted to privatize that. And then all of a sudden they had to pull that policy because it was so outrageously bad.

And now in the middle of a massive crisis, they're bereft of ideas again. And so they've gone back to the private market, back to a commercial app developer to kind of fix their problems for them. And they keep going back to that well, and they keep thinking that the drink is gonna be different this time. And it's not. And the royal commission has been so clear about that. And this story illustrates the defective thinking that has been in this system now for two decades. And that's the stuff that needs to change.

RUBY:

Rick, thanks so much for your time today.

RICK:

Thanks, Ruby. Thanks for having me.

[ADVERTISEMENT]

RUBY:

Also in the news -

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has used a speech to the National Press Club to announce his government is working towards an overhaul of Australia's industrial relations system.

Scott Morrison announced that the Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter would lead a new process bringing together unions, employer groups and businesses to try to change the current system, which he said was "not fit for purpose".

As a gesture of goodwill, the government will not pursue a second vote on its Ensuring Integrity Bill, which was strongly opposed by unions.

**

And human trials of a potential Covid-19 vaccine have begun in Melbourne, with about 130 people involved in the program.

The potential vaccine is being developed by US biotech company Novavax.

Preliminary results for phase one are expected in July, and phase two results by the end of the year.

**

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

A multimillion-dollar contract for an app that places aged-care workers in nursing homes has triggered concerns about quality and access. The government money favours one private company, which says it has “no duty of care” for the work it provides. Rick Morton on the limited tender that won big for an app called Mable.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

Exclusive: Gov’s $5.8 million aged-care app offers “no duty of care” in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app. I’m Ruby Jones, see you next week.

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232: Uber but for government money