A nurse who headed a huge rest home and retirement village business has been appointed as New Zealand's inaugural Aged Care Commissioner, and tasked by the Government with "leading much-needed systematic change in the sector".
Carolyn Cooper has resigned as the managing director of Bupa Villages & Aged Care NZ, which has about $1.6 billion of assets in Aotearoa, to take up the new watchdog role for a five-year term, starting next month.
She has also been on the board of the Aged Care Association, which represents most rest home owners and operators and in the past criticised the Labour Government's decision to establish an Aged Care Commissioner as "another layer of bureaucracy doubling up on already rigorous audit and reporting".
She told the Herald the association's concerns lessened as it became clear how the role would work with other regulators. However, her industry ties wouldn't mean she lacked bite as a new watchdog, she said.
"I have a very broad health experience background. I understand the way DHBs work, I understand how other parts of the sector work. And I am there for older people, that is my main thing - to make sure of their rights, protection and access to healthcare.
"I have lived experience in the area - my mum is in aged care - so I understand what it's like to be a family member. There's lots to me other than my experience with Bupa."
Seniors and Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall said Cooper had a more than 40-year career in all parts of the health service, mostly in the public hospital system and including governance, executive and clinical leadership roles.
Her appointment was made by the Ministry of Health with input from the Health & Disability Commissioner, Verrall said, "a position wholly centred on patient rights".
"The majority of the sector is private, so anyone with any sector experience would have worked in the private sector at some point ... she is someone who has a very practical knowledge of how you fix healthcare quality problems."
The position would be part of the Health & Disability Commission, and investigate complaints about aged care, home care, needs assessment and palliative care.
Verrall said there would be mechanisms to deal with potential conflicts of interest. She also wants Cooper to investigate systemic issues in aged care and advocate for improvements.
Neither Verrall or Cooper would say what they thought those issues were, with Cooper planning on first consulting with older people (last October when still at Bupa she said the sector's biggest challenges were a lack of government funding and a labour shortage, which are linked: "We would pay our staff more if we had more funding").
Verrall said the vast majority of people in aged care experience high-quality care, but multiple reports had raised problems including a complex complaints process, people fearing repercussions if they raise issues, and examples of poor care.
"[Substandard care] is deeply troubling to me. And I saw some instances of that when I was a doctor caring for older people at Wellington Hospital."