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Staff shortages shut down aged care beds

Demand for residential care is strong, so why are there so many empty beds while older people have to live in hospitals?

  • Health
  • Read Time: 5 mins

The federal government’s new staffing requirements for aged care homes is having unintended consequences for providers and prospective residents.

It’s become more difficult to find an aged care home bed and someone to care for you.

The Duty of care: Aged-care sector running on empty report by the Committee for Economic Development Australia (CEDA) has found many aged care providers are struggling to find enough staff, as required by the new laws, and are having to shut down wards and beds.

All aged-care homes are required to provide 200 minutes of direct care a day per resident, including 40 minutes of nursing care.

However, the worker shortage has meant homes are operating under capacity, with some as low as 50% occupied. 

CEDA has called on the government to urgently step-up efforts to address the growing shortage of aged-care workers, especially in regional and remote areas.

“New mandated staffing levels mean many facilities are operating well below full capacity because they can’t get enough workers. Some have closed altogether,” CEDA Chief Economist Cassandra Winzar said.

While the government’s staffing changes are important to increase the quality of care for older Australians, it is adding pressure on providers already struggling to maintain their workforces and cater to demand for home-care services.

Previous CEDA research found there would be a shortfall of at least 110,000 direct-care workers by 2030.

“Not enough has been done to fix this,” Ms Winzar said.

“There must be more action from government to make meaningful progress on closing this workforce gap.” 

Aged-care patients remain in hospitals because of the lack of aged care home places.

CEDA found that from December 2021 to June 2022, the number of regional patients in NSW awaiting discharge to an aged-care facility nearly tripled. It concluded there is no sign of the trend abating.

Regional crisis

Regional hospitals are particularly affected by the closure of aged-care facilities.

CEDA found in the 2022 December quarter alone, 13 residential providers left the sector, and at least 18 aged care homes are due to close this year.

“Despite recent wage rises, many workers are finding it hard to remain in the sector at a time of stubbornly high inflation, and employers are unable to compete on pay and conditions,” Ms Winzar said.

“New labour agreements have proven hard to implement and are insufficient for broad application across the industry.”

While there have been calls to bring in foreign workers, CEDA said migration alone would not solve the workforce challenge.

Too common

CEDA has called for these measures to be implemented:

  • Recruit personal-care workers directly by introducing a new “essential skills visa” to allow workers to migrate with long-term residency opportunities. This visa would only be for areas of critical need, such as aged-care, childcare, and disability and health care.

  • Introduce a user-pays system for aged-care clients who meet certain income or asset thresholds, to help ensure the long-term viability of the sector. 

  • Prioritise key worker housing in regional areas under the National Housing Accord and look at options for rental assistance such as the National Rental Affordability Scheme. 

“Funding for the sector, through a mix of increased government and personal contributions, will have to rise to ensure we can provide high-quality care to older Australians,” Ms Winzar said.

“Without further action, we will be unable to provide the care the community rightfully expects.”

The government has commissioned a taskforce to examine the issues faced in aged care, including funding and workforce, and it will present a final report by the end of the year.

Taskforce chair and Aged Care Minister Anika Wells has flagged that she is considering a proposal from aged-care providers for older people to use superannuation to cover some of the costs of care.

The federal government’s aged care quarterly financial snapshot released in September notes occupancy rates for residential aged care have consistently sat around 86% in the past year.

Ms Winzar said two decades ago, nursing homes were operating at 97% capacity; pre-Covid it was about 90%.

A government spokesperson told The Australian “Older Australians want to stay at home longer”, which is why the government was funding more homecare packages.

The number of people receiving homecare packages more than tripled between 2017 and 2022 to nearly 216,000.

Ms Winzar said while consumer preference was clearly in favour of bringing services into the home, the demographic pressures of an ageing population would continue to drive demand for nursing home care.

Related reading: CEDA, The Australian

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