Initially it seems that the Federal budget has allocated a substantial amount of funds towards sustaining and improving aged care. It does indeed respond to some of the Age Care Commission’s Final Report in March 2021 recommendations, but in real terms, is it enough? In a word, NO!.
The most difficult aspect of the announced budget figures is knowing what funds are new. The numbers sound huge, $3.9 billion over four years. The allocations are in response to recommendations which aim to provide a fair and responsive residential and aged care service. Who would argue with that? In short the budget includes:
- $9.9 million over two years to a dedicated aged care complaints commissioner
- $38.7 million over four years for a new independent inspector-general of aged care to target systemic issues
- $5 million for the Maggie Beer Foundation to educate and train aged care staff to meet new nutritional standards
- $68.5 million to improve regional services including expanding the department’s presence into eight new locations
- $312.6 million to reduce the administrative burden on providers interacting with the government’s aged care systems;
- $3.6 million to create a professional aged care workforce, including a new national registration scheme and code of conduct for personal care workers.
- Finally, there were a range of smaller initiatives to support a fairer and more inclusive system for Australia’s First Nations Elders, elders with cognitive or physical disability, and other diverse communities.
However, all of these measures are contained in The Aged Care Amendment (Implementing Care Reform) Bill 2022 which was introduced into parliament in July and is currently before the Senate.
In time, we will learn what is in fact new money and what initiatives will help us achieve our shared goal. The issues which concern me the most are the amount of money allocated to the new Australian National Aged Care Classification (AN-ACC) and workforce.
When we can get staff in a time of global shortage, my worry is that they are generally not paid enough and are tired and worn out, so how do we support them and other health professionals?’
In this regard, the government reconfirmed its support for the Fair Work Commission to increase wages for aged care workers and provide funding for this. It also supports training and reducing waiting times to process visas for migrant workers. There is wholehearted support from the industry for higher salaries for aged care employees who are beyond deserving of this. What is not clear is how these wage increases will be paid. Close to 67% of the aged care providers in the latest StewartBrown survey are reporting deficits in their operations for the financial year ending 30 June 2022. This figure is expected to be repeated or increase this financial year.
We are told that the new funding model – the AN-ACC of $2.5 b over four years – will help fund the commitment to increase the number of care minutes for each resident to 200 minutes per day including 40 minutes from registered nurses and increased the following year to 215 minutes of which 44 minutes are to be received from registered nurses. This funding will also be used to ensure aged care homes have a registered nurse onsite 24/7 from 1 July 2023.
To help providers adjust to the new funding model, $43.8 million has been set aside for the AN-ACC Transition Fund. The AN-ACC funds barely pay for the care minutes at staff’s current rates, so to say we are in challenging times is an understatement. Wage pressures are an increasing concern – staff are being poached to bigger salaries but we have no ability to increase our income which is all set by government. One last issue which relates to Home Care Packages is that despite the long waiting lists of over 50,000 Australians, package numbers have not increased. There may be good reasons for this. At the moment the shortage of aged care staff extends to Home Care, so any additional packages are likely not to be filled. Had the numbers increased, it would have confirmed the government’s position of assisting Elders to remain in their homes, which is what most want. The key issue is whether we have sufficiently addressed the structural issues which help us to develop a sustainable aged care model which can be accessed by all those in need. Has this budget done much to help address these issues so that we can indeed improve and respond to the needs of our Elders? I’m not sure it has gone far enough.