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ROYAL COMMISSION: “It was quite a fraught day”

The first day of the Brisbane hearings for the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety heard from multiple witnesses for a case study into the sudden closure of Earle Haven Retirement Village in Queensland last month. 

Executive Director of HelpStreet at Earle Haven, Karen Parsons, explained the relationship breakdown between the companies that lead to evacuation of 68 residents. [Source: Aged Care Royal Commission]
Executive Director of HelpStreet at Earle Haven, Karen Parsons, explained the relationship breakdown between the companies that lead to evacuation of 68 residents. [Source: Aged Care Royal Commission]

Around 68 vulnerable residents were evacuated from the nursing home in Nerang, Queensland on July 11 following the managing company going into “administration”.

The Commission heard the chaotic audio of the Triple 0 call made at 1.33pm on July 11 from Clinical Manager of Earle Haven, Telecia Tuccori, who expressed confusion and uncertainty over what to do after nearly all the staff left the grounds.

Even the emergency dispatch operator expressed surprise at the number of residents that needed to be evacuated.

Records and equipment removed

Queensland Ambulance Service Senior Operations Supervisor, Cary Strong, explained his experience as one of the first emergency respondents on scene at Earle Haven on July 11. 

He recalled seeing removalists strip the facility of furniture and other equipment while verbal arguments went on in the foyer.

Mr Strong says he had issues getting any information about care requirements for residents and whether they would be safe to move.

In his search for any available equipment, he found many rooms had been left with only single beds inside and were stripped of linen.

Mr Strong was unable to access any patient care files on the facility computer system since the computer system had been removed from the premises.

He asked for any documentation available and was provided with keys to the drug safe and given fire evacuation documents, which he was able to roughly ascertain who was onsite and where they were located.

"The young lady that I asked, to her credit, she actually hung on to both of those folders (fire evacuation folders)," Mr Strong says.

"She was positioned between two police officers for Queensland Police Service due to the fact, as she stated to me, that other staff or other persons wanted those folders and they wanted to punch her head in."

The event was deeply distressing for residents, especially since a large number of people within the facility had dementia.

Mr Strong counted around nine staff left in the facility to help take care of the residents.

A “bully” and “volatile”

Executive Director of HelpStreet at the Earle Haven, Karen Parsons, explained her early relationship breakdown with the owner of Earle Haven and People Care, Arthur Miller.

A number of weeks after she started at Earle Haven in October last year, she explained a confrontation with Mr Miller over security concerns raised by staff. She alleged he had threatened to report her to HelpStreet and pull the contract lease with the company.

HelpStreet Global Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Kristofer Bunker, only had a breakdown in relationship with Mr Miller early this year.

One of the major causes of the fallout between the organisations was over a financial dispute, with HelpStreet stating that Mr Miller owned their staff wages.

On July 10, one day before the mass walkout, the facility medical data system was removed for an “upgrade” and management staff had a meeting to prepare for any fall out from communication between the two organisations.

Ms Parsons says, “Mr Bunker directed us, or directed the team to maybe put some structures in place due to the concerns that he had with Mr Miller and the way he may react to the communication that they had between each other. 

“There was concern about that because you never really knew what Mr Miller would do. He was quite volatile.”

Ms Parsons described July 11 as “quite a fraught day”.

In her written statement read out to Mr Miller, she says, “Mr Miller arrived at the facility and started to argue with the staff, saying words to the effect of ‘I have received complaints from families that the care in the home is terrible, your care is rubbish and I no longer want HelpStreet here.’

“I will not pay any more money. They don’t tell the truth; they have problems with unions… “There was a meeting with the residents. They don’t like the way they are being treated here. The care is rubbish. Since he [points at Mr Bunker] made all the changes no one wants to come to the home.”

Mr Miller says this statement was completely untrue and also suggested that the removed medical data system from the facility was used as a form of ransom, saying HelpStreet attempted to bargain back the documents to People Care for cash.

During his time on the stand, Mr Miller described his opinion of HelpStreet’s services as very poor, which is why he wanted to terminate the contract early, giving the management organisation a month to leave.

He also says it was untrue that the staff had not been paid because the due date for the money was meant to be on the following Friday.

Mr Miller also admitted he had never told the Department of Health that he was intending to sever ties with HelpStreet.

To the Commission, Mr Bunker did confirm in his statement that Mr Miller and People Care were aware that HelpStreet had been provided with a notice of disqualification from managing corporations in June of last year, making him a disqualified director.

Emergency plans not in place

While staff were planning to organise respite spots in other centres for their residents, it never eventuated as HelpStreet staff didn’t believe the walk-out would occur.

Clinical Manager of Earle Haven, Telecia Tuccori expressed disbelief about the unlikely events that ensued on July 11, which is why nothing was organised the night before.

“It was quite panicky. I was sort of hoping it was just a possibility and it wasn’t going to come to that… Nor was I certain of the severity… I suppose you could call in personal opinion, I would think it would be less likely that that was going to happen because, to me, it seemed quite extreme,” says Ms Tuccori.

“I was uncertain of what the outcome would be. I mean, even if it was to eventuate that HelpStreet were to leave, there was nothing to suggest that Mr Miller wasn’t going to offer to pay the staff to complete their shifts for the next, you know, on toward. There was a large array of better outcomes.”

Mr Bunker says HelpStreet didn’t make the decision to leave the facility, turning the blame on Karen Heard, an external consultant to People Care, saying she had told them on multiple occasions to vacate on July 11.

Counsel didn’t accept this as Ms Heard had stated she arrived at the facility at 3.30pm and removalists had already been at the facility from roughly 12pm, suggesting the walkout was premeditated.

She arrived at the facility and described the scene as chaotic and very disorganised.

Ms Heard’s attempt at finding residents records were not successful and she was not able to obtain any information about the immediate health status of residents.

$3 million dollar deadline

The Commission heard that HelpStreet Global Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Kristofer Bunker, had given owner, Arthur Miller, an ultimatum that night before HelpStreet vacated Earle Haven, stating that over $3 million dollars needed to be paid to the organisation to resolve the dispute that had engulfed the two facilities.

HelpStreet had demanded for around $3 million to be paid within the next 24 hours, with more monetary instalments over the next month.

“[To be paid] that was one solution for breach of contract, but there was the option to discuss that further, which we weren’t given the opportunity to do,” says Mr Bunker.

“As a team, we discussed the concerns that we had around keeping our staff on site and so we looked at the options.

“My concern was keeping staff on site, that they may not choose to stay and continue to work, when we discussed with them that we might not be able to continue to trade... knowing that we weren’t being paid.

The principal amount HelpStreet was seeking was $3.8 million and were looking for $2.7 million plus GST, which was discounted to 25 percent.

Mr Bunker says the suggested amount was just to start conversation, but Counsel pointed out that Mr Miller did provide a counteroffer to this email demand, which didn’t seem to be acknowledged by HelpStreet.

Compliance issues weren’t appropriately handled

The last witnesses to take to the stand was Regional Manager of the Quality and Monitoring Group at the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, Tracey Rees, and Commonwealth Department of Health Acting Assistant Secretary for the Aged Care Compliance Branch

in the Aged Care Reform and Compliance Division, Anthony David Speed.

The Counsel suggested there was not enough done regarding reporting and compliance from HelpStreet and People Care to the Department of health or Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission.

Counsel even suggested that the two departments did not communicate effectively with each other or follow up strongly enough with both organisations to get proper information and records.

Counsel also raised concern that the Aged Care Quality and Safety were not aware that HelpStreet’s Mr Bunker was a disqualified director.

The next hearing will take place today, 6 August in Brisbane, Queensland.

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