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InnovAGEING Case Study

Walara’s merger demonstrates the power of collaboration

As the saying goes, there’s safety in numbers. And recently, with three small residential aged care homes in the Lower North region of South Australia merging into one, there are a lot more numbers, to keep everyone afloat.

Not just a story about the value of collaboration, combined with a balanced level of parochialism for each of the three locations now under the one banner, it also highlights how government programs can support aged care providers going through change, and that innovation does not have to be a new idea, rather, it can mean not being afraid to adopt something that has worked before.

Hamley Bridge Aged Care Inc. and Balaklava Mill Court Homes Inc. were two longstanding respected small-sized aged care providers operating separately in the Lower North region of South Australia, with 48 beds and 40 beds respectively.

The size, age and rural location of these homes presented significant challenges for long-term sustainability. Ongoing financial viability and compliance failures were identified through new Board members and the Department of Health and Aged Care’s Financial Monitoring and Business Program in 2021. In 2020 and 2021 the two providers incurred losses of over $2m losses, breached RAD permitted use guidelines in order to operate, and the Commission identified 14 and 27 significant non compliances at the two sites, respectively. Both providers were on the verge of closure.

To offer specialised support, the Department of Health and Aged Care engaged a Panel Member to work closely with both providers through the Service Development Assistance Panel.

They were able to support the providers through the merger process, navigating the requirements of both the Australian Government and the SA Government, as well as those of the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission.

At a local level, the Panel Member was able to work with Board and Management and facilitate community forums and legal and regulatory processes – helping the providers to merge seamlessly in October 2022 to create Walara Inc.

Throughout this process the providers maintained contact with the Aged & Community Care Providers Association (ACCPA), who provided support in governance training; policies and procedures; and understanding the expectations of community, Australian Government and the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission.

In March 2023, a third local aged care provider – Gilbert Valley Senior Citizens Homes (Riverton) Inc., with 27 beds – merged its services with Walara Inc. to create a 115-bed residential aged care multi-site provider.

More resources minimises the risk from the usual challenges faced by small rural aged care providers, such as financial viability and the ability to meet compliance expectations.

The support Walara Inc. received from the Australian Government, was a key factor in this step towards a more sustainable future.

“The Service Development Assistance Panel was a very helpful initiative that basically helped Hamley Bridge Aged Care Inc. and Balaklava Mill Court Homes Inc remain viable and then amalgamate to create Walara Inc. The Department of Health and Aged Care Officers and Panel Member were all very knowledgeable of what was required, and offered the right skills and support,” said Nino Di Sisto, CEO of Walara Inc.

“What was also important, through community consultation, is that we were able to seamlessly maintain each organisation’s strong community-based identities, which was important for locals, to ensure a continued sense of ownership of the service and not alienate anyone as a result of a new name, or a bigger organisation.”

So, what are the advantages of a merger for small single-site providers, particularly those in rural areas?

Most importantly, from the experience of Walara Inc., their foresight and fearless approach to ensure their livelihoods means they are able to continue to provide an important service to a regional area.

This has been made possible through:

  • shared administration, compliance, and backend roles across services
  • amalgamation of specialised positions and strengthened roles across a combined Board
  • aged care homes keeping their identity in the communities
  • sharing and flexibility of a qualified workforce across locations
  • reduced duplication across policies, reporting and documentation.

The Walara Inc. Board now comprises a highly skilled and qualified team with strong succession plans embraced by the commnity, whose elected representatives form part of the board member selection process.

Through the work of skilled and committed board and management, all Walara Inc. sites comply with statutory and legislative requirements and are fully accredited until 2025/26.

In its first (part year) of operation in 2022/23, Walara Inc. generated normalised operating surplus of over $0.8m, progressing towards a similar result for 2023/24.

“Through our three-way merger, we have ensured the livelihood of something much bigger than an organisation, we have made it possible for a rural area to continue to access the kinds of services that are valuable to them, and to which they are entitled,” said Nino.

“On top of that, we have secured numerous jobs in the region, we get the benefit of new ideas and skillsets for the entire organisation, and we can offer a more attractive work proposition for future employees, helping to secure our workforce long-term.

“This is supported by a Walara international Registered Nurse recruitment initiative with the first two nurses commencing in March 2024. Many of these nurses are joining our community who have for many years had a strong focus on supporting multicultural divesity.”

Community expectation for high quality facilities is well appreciated by the Walara Inc. Board which has worked hard to enable $10m in self-funded and Australian Government sponsored facility redevelopments across two sites in 2024. Once completed, there will be a total of 122 beds available.

Retirement living and fee-for-service home care is also part of the suite of aged care services provided by Walara Inc. in Balaklava and Riverton and a further merger in this area is progressing to take effect mid-2024.

“It does require a fearless approach, a merger means letting go to some degree, but the community rewards are so much greater,” said Nino.

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Walara Inc

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