Aged Care Failing to Close Registered Nurse Gap

The residential care sector needs almost 6000 more nurses to meet tough new rules this year – a shortfall that has barely reduced over the past three months – casting doubt on whether many services will be able to continue operating. According to new figures from the Department of Health and Aged Care, residential aged care is facing a gap of 5918 nurses by 2024-25, an improvement of only 44 from government forecasts during the December quarter. The Australian can also reveal that a further seven aged-care facilities closed in the three months to December, with Labor’s stringent nursing reforms placing intense strain on the sector. The closures come despite ­escalating demand on residential services as the population ages. The Albanese government’s latest intergenerational report projected life expectancy continuing to increase, placing more demand on government-funded services. At least 54 aged-care homes have shut since September 2022, according to figures from the Department of Health and Aged Care, as the sector grapples with Labor’s staffing reforms, including 24/7 mandatory registered nurses and minimum care requirements.

Nursing homes are racing to comply with a sector-wide average of 215 minutes of care, including 44 minutes of direct care with a registered nurse from October 1 this year. The Department of Health and Aged Care estimates last week revealed just 30 per cent of facilities had met the government’s targets. Officials were unable to reveal whether they expected nursing homes would meet the new requirements. “In terms of the number of facilities that reach both those targets, I guess we will have to wait and see,” a senior official told Senate estimates. Aged-care expert Paul Sadler said the slow uptick in the number of nurses nationally meant meeting the government’s care targets was going to be a “real challenge” for the sector. He said Labor’s regulations had worsened the financial viability of many services which were already struggling to find staff. “The increase in the number of RNs (registered nurses) is so minuscule that it doesn’t make any difference to the challenge of a shortfall of RNs on a national basis,” Mr Sadler said. “What I am hearing is that many homes are going to struggle to meet the expected minimum come October this year.”

The Australian recently revealed the aged-care sector had greatly increased its use of short-term contract workers in a bid to fulfil Labor’s stringent staffing reforms, rapidly escalating the cost burden on providers and threatening their viability. Providers’ reliance on expensive agency workers has quadrupled, with externally contracted staff employed by a third party now delivering 7.5 per cent of total direct care hours worked, compared with just 1.8 per cent in 2019. Grant Thornton national head of health and aged care Darrell Price said efforts to increase the number of nurses working in aged care needed to ramp up to meet projected demand as the population ages. “The 1 per cent increase in nurses as reported by the Department of Health is a long way short of the number required to meet significantly increasing demand as baby boomers enter into aged-care services,” Mr. Price said. Providers are calling for the government’s suite of reforms to be delayed enabling workforce levels to rise, as well as to meet the care minutes through innovative solutions such as nursing support by video or phone conferencing.

Aged Care Industry Association chief executive Peter Hoppo said telehealth support could contribute to addressing workforce shortages and help services in regional and rural areas achieve care-minute targets with minor changes to the legislation. “The acute shortage of nurses only exacerbates the significant challenges currently facing the sector, including providers who are caught between a rock and a hard place, tasked with raising care standards and supporting workforce changes with fewer qualified staff,” Mr. Hoppo said. Aged Care Minister Anika Wells blamed workforce shortfalls on “nine years of Coalition neglect” and poor planning. Ms Wells said Labor was addressing the shortfall by funding an $11.3bn pay rise for more than 250,000 nurses in aged care. The Coalition seized on the government’s updated workforce projections, saying Labor had failed to address critical labour shortages despite promising to fix the aged-care sector.

Opposition health and aged care spokeswoman Anne Ruston said Labor’s reforms had increased the cost burden on providers and forced aged-care homes to close, as she called for Labor to implement urgently a comprehensive care workforce strategy. “I have one simple message for the minister: if the workforce doesn’t exist, reform cannot be achieved,” Senator Ruston said. “It is time the government stops placing additional stress on the sector and starts providing real support by bolstering the care workforce.” Australia’s largest not-for-profit group of health and aged-care services, Catholic Healthcare Australia, said its members were facing pressure as a result of the ongoing shortfall in the number of registered nurses available for aged care. The group, which represents more than 550 residential and community aged-care services, called for the re-establishment of Health Workforce Australia to act as a dedicated government agency to lead labour planning.

“No agency has sufficient oversight of either current or future workforce needs in Australia’s health and care sectors,” said Catholic Health Australia public health director Alex Lynch. Health and aged-care expert Richard Baldwin said the residential care industry was struggling to secure staff as it was now forced to compete with both the acute care sector and disability services for workers. He warned that shortages had been exacerbated by the expansion of the NDIS, as he labelled 24/7 nursing requirements “another burden” for the sector. “The aged-care sector has certainly felt the expansion of the NDIS in recent years, and the requirement for RNs in nursing homes has become another burden for that industry where they are also competing with the acute-care sector,” he said. Australia’s largest independent not-for-profit aged-care provider, Bolton Clarke, said it was a strong supporter of expanded staffing requirements while ­acknowledging the transition had been difficult in regional areas. “We are strong supporters of pushing through to Phase 2 of the direct care minutes,” said Bolton Clarke executive general manager Tim Hicks.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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