Aged care reforms will require 25,000 new workers over two years: internal documents

Around-the-clock nursing in aged care and mandated time spent caring for each nursing home resident will create a shortfall of about 25,000 workers in two years’ time.

Internal Health Department documents from late last year, published this week under freedom of information laws, reveal the government’s election promise to implement the two key recommendations of the aged care royal commission will require 14,626 new workers in 2023-24 and 25,093 the year after.

Around-the-clock nursing in aged care homes and mandated time spent caring for each nursing home resident will create a shortfall of about 25,000 workers within two years.

The internal briefing note listed several initiatives that were likely to close that gap, including migration, pay rises, increased workforce utilisation and fewer staff exits. But they amounted to only 6100 new workers under the calculations from November, leaving thousands more places to be filled.

The Albanese government’s aged care reforms will require aged care homes to have a registered nurse on site 24 hours a day from July, and mandate a minimum 200 care minutes per resident each day from October to improve the ailing sector.

But they will also exacerbate chronic workforce shortages. Including the impact of the new measures, the department last year calculated the overall shortfall would be 25,437 nurses and care workers in the next financial year, blowing out to 39,738 in 2024-25.

A spokesman for Aged Care Minister Anika Wells said that gap had shrunk by more than 3000 since November, with the department’s most recent figures indicating the overall shortfall for the next financial year was now 21,700 workers, and could fall further when the next quarter’s data was finalised.

“The latest estimates of aged care workforce show the overall gap between the supply and demand for workers is closing,” he said.

He also said the worker shortage did not appear overnight, blaming “years of inaction and a lack of planning from the former government”.

Coalition aged care spokeswoman Anne Ruston on Friday said she wanted to see older Australians getting the care they needed and deserved.

“But in the absence of being able to get access to registered nurses, and to be able to have them meet the requirements of the government’s legislation, the government needs to answer what happens to these homes if they aren’t able to make those care minutes,” she said.

“We know that in rural and regional areas, with the best of intent and the best of commitment, that many providers, and that includes councils, are not able to get access to workforce.”

A Health Department spokesman said 5 per cent of facilities, mainly in regional and remote areas, would be eligible for a 12-month exemption from the 24/7 requirement to give them more time to transition, and this had not been factored into the workforce figures.

Department modelling has also not yet been updated to reflect the impact that a 15 per cent pay rise for aged care workers, awarded last year by the Fair Work Commission, will have on workforce numbers.

Both the government and stakeholders expect the pay rise to improve the situation by making the sector more appealing to both existing and new staff.

“This pay rise will help deliver more carers with more time to care so we can do what the royal commission asked of us – ensure older people are treated with respect and dignity,” Wells’ spokesman said.

Lori-Anne Sharp, the federal assistant secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, said there had been worker shortfalls for a long time and the latest data demonstrated the problem.

“People have left because the workloads have been at crisis point, and it’s a low-paid sector. Some of the initiatives that have happened in the last 12 months are trying to change the tide,” she said.

While the government’s new measures would exacerbate worker shortages in the short term, she said they were vital in creating a cultural shift among aged care providers that would make workloads safer and ensure long-term sustainability. The 15 per cent pay rise was also an important factor.

“We’ve still got a way to go but it’s a start. It will take time to build because it has been decimated over the last two decades,” she said.

Aged and Community Care Providers Association chief executive Tom Symondson said workforce shortfalls were extremely concerning.

“The impact of the pandemic, the loss of workers from the sector and the financial strain being felt by a majority of aged care providers has meant the situation is even worse,” he said.

“Not only do we need to address the current shortfall, we need to increase workforce supply into the future to meet growth in demand for aged care services.”

Symondson said his association was working with the government on solutions, including potential changes to visa rules to give more flexibility for visa holders to work in aged care.

Its pre-budget submission also calls for aged care nurses to receive salaries that match their colleagues’ in public hospitals, to stop them from leaving the sector.

“The goal is to make aged care a sector of choice by improving training and development opportunities, skill levels and pay,” he said. “It will take a range of initiatives such as these over the short and long term to improve the sector’s ability to attract new workers and retain skilled and experienced staff.”

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