Staff Shortages Force Aged-Care Shutdowns

A growing number of aged-care facilities are closing due to workforce shortages, as regional providers warn they are being left in limbo waiting for exemptions under Labor’s 24/7 nursing targets. At least two aged-care facilities have recently told residents they will shut down citing difficulties meeting the federal government’s new nursing rules introduced on July 1. The closure of both regional Queensland facilities – Carinity Summit Cottages in Mount Morgan and Petrie Gardens Aged Care Service in Tiaro – will displace 33 elderly residents from their homes. Carinity owns 12 homes across Queensland while Petrie Gardens is owned by the Churches of Christ, which runs 28 facilities across Queensland and Victoria. The closures come as regional NSW aged care facilities warn they are being left in limbo waiting for exemptions to be granted for Labor’s 24/7 nursing targets after they became law, sparking concern they are operating in breach of new rules.

Ahead of the last election, Anthony Albanese unveiled a policy requiring aged care facilities to have at least one nurse working at all times by July 1 – a year earlier than the aged-care royal commission had recommended. While the government has vowed to give exemptions for some regional providers, aged care operators say the government has not responded to their applications. NSW provider Whiddon applied for exemptions over six weeks ago but is still waiting to hear whether two of its homes – in Bourke and Wee Waa – will qualify to be exempt from the new policy.The two homes are located in rural NSW and have been unable to source registered nurses required to be compliant for the law, triggering the provider to apply for exemptions in May. Whiddon chief executive Chris Mamarelis said sourcing workers in rural NSW was “extremely challenging” and he was yet to receive an exemption from the 24/7 nursing target.

Mr Mamarelis said the Wee Waa Health service had also recently shut its emergency department after hours due to struggles to attract staff. “In terms of our position, these are extremely challenging locations to attract and retain suitably qualified people to and we must therefore rely on the exemption process in order to continue to serve our communities,” Mr Mamarelis said. “We would love nothing more than to meet the nursing requirements, however the workforce is simply not there in these locations and even attempts to bring in skilled workers from overseas is extremely challenging. “It’s an unusual position we find ourselves in, having to comply with the new reforms without a clear understanding of whether an exemption has been granted.” Australian College of Nursing chief executive Kylie Ward urged the government to provide clarity to providers on whether they would receive an exemption.

She said the government should allow providers an extra six to 12 months to meet the target and questioned the government’s calculations that just 5 per cent of residential services would need exemptions. “I don’t think it‘s only 5 per cent that’s non-compliant, it’s very hard to see that could be true. Everybody is doing the best they can but people need to know,” Ms Ward said. The closures in Queensland follow 23 facilities shutting down since September last year, according to figures from the Department of Health and Aged care. Carinity Summit Cottages said a nationwide shortage of aged care staff meant staying open was “not a viable-long term solution” given increases in expectations from the community and regulators on staffing levels in residential facilities. “A nationwide shortage of aged care staff, combined with Mount Morgan’s regional location, has made maintaining the required staffing levels at Summit Cottages increasingly difficult.

The situation has worsened in recent months,” Carinity Summit Cottages said. “Given the low likelihood that the lack of suitably qualified staff can be overcome, and the increase in expectations from the community and regulators regarding staffing levels in aged care communities, Carinity has no option but to conduct a staged closure of Summit Cottages.” Petrie Gardens management said its 10 residents will be transferred to a site at Fair Haven. “In light of the federal government’s changes to age care compliance regulations, including the 24/7 nursing requirement which came into effect on July 1, and the minimum care minutes which will come into effect on October 1, we have made the decision to close our Petrie Gardens residential aged care service by the end of the month,” it said.

Another home, Lyndoch Living in southwest Victoria, last month announced it would close its residential aged facility in Terang blaming “long-term skills shortage which is further impacted by the 24/7 registered nurse requirement”. Aged care operators have also raised concern about new rules forcing facilities to report every period of 30 minutes or more when a registered nurse was not on duty, creating further regulatory burdens for staff. Aged Care Minister Anika Wells last month acknowledged the workforce was “thousands short” but stood behind targets to have the 24/7 requirement in place for all facilities. Ms Wells has made clear no homes will be forcibly closed solely on the basis of staffing shortages and has stressed the Department of Health will work with all facilities. “Each exemption requires a detailed consideration of complex clinical care arrangements to ensure the standard of care for residents is being met, and this is the law,” Ms Wells said.

A government spokesman said there was no delay in providing exemptions and that all applications were expected to be finalised “shortly”. Labor’s aged care nurse requirements is ‘ill-considered’. The spokesman said 15 of a total of 51 per cent were received before the June 1 deadline, despite applications opening in March. Opposition health spokeswoman Anne Ruston said older Australians were being forced out of their homes under Labor’s new rules. “It is shocking that this minister is comfortable with watching homes shut down not just because of her rushed legislative requirements, but because of the niche exemption criteria that she has determined,” Senator Ruston said. The Department of Health in June told senate estimates that it was engaged with 117 facilities about exemptions, with 130 aged care facilities eligible to apply.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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