A united front in the call for aged care reform.

The fight for aged care reform has been heating up with the aged care industry and its partners taking on a united front to push for a more sustainable aged care system. The unity of the sector was evident at the ACCV Aged Care Leaders Symposium held on 16 September 2011.

In a pre-recorded interview, the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler, stated that the government would focus its aged care reform on three focus areas:

  • Access to care
  • Level of choice
  • Sustainability of aged care system

The Minister also stressed that staffing would become an issue if something was not done soon. Today, there are 300,000 employees in the aged care sector, whereas over 900,000 workers will be needed in the coming years. However, while the government is prepared to work with the unions to set fairer wages, the Minister was quick to add that wages alone won’t solve the skills shortage. Quality of management and attracting a more specialised and skilled workforce needs to be addressed, especially in specialised areas of aged care such as dementia.

Lee Thomas, Federal Secretary of the Australian Nursing Federation reiterated that, in terms of staffing, the PC report lacked recommendations to deal with the aged care sectors shortage of nurses, and in addition, the ageing workforce. While the demand for nurses is increasing as our population ages, today, the average aged care worker is 49 years old. Adding to the problem is the staff turnover rate which is 1/3 higher than that of hospital nurses and the fact that only 5% of nursing graduates are considering moving into aged care.

Mr Butler also stressed that the conversations held throughout Australia have had a strong theme of people wanting to stay at home for longer and the need for in-home care and increased home modification services. The question then is, what is home? Is home staying in your family home or is it staying in a house of your choice? According to Mark Butler, “the home is in the eye of the beholder”. Many older people are actually choosing to sell their home to downsize the big family home to something more manageable in a retirement village. Today, there are as many people living in retirement villages as there are in residential care.

So what did Mr Butler have to say about the Productivity Commission’s proposed changes? In regards to competition and concerns that some smaller aged care providers may not survive, the Minister said this is hard to avoid, and while the PC has proposed financial relief during the transition stages, the government is yet to rule this possibility in or out. When the question turned towards the 2012-13 budget, the Minister said that no budget areas have been considered at this stage. However, he did agree that the PC’s recommendations need to be looked at as a suite of recommendations rather than ‘pick and choose’ solutions.

While the Minister was happy to discuss changes, he was very vague about what and when changes would begin. COTA Australia CEO, Ian Yates, expects a minimum of two years before any legislation is put before the government.

Victorian Minister for Health and Minister for Ageing, David Davis, also attended the symposium and discussed Victoria’s health and ageing plans. In agreement with Mr Butler, the Victorian Government believes older people need choices, need to know what services are available when and where and their quality standards. Mr Davis said that a better aged care system would help free up hospital beds and expects the relationship between health and ageing to grow closer. He also stated that the government has seven reform priorities, the first four of which are related to improvements in the health and ageing sector. And while Mark Butler seemed cautiously optimistic about the changes ahead, Mr Davis stated he was “cautiously wary” of the changes, in particular around access and the proposed Gateway agency. An already financially constrained government, Mr Davis fears the PC’s recommendations would see cost shifting to consumers or the Victorian government.

What can we conclude from this? The aged care sector is pining for reform for a system that will provide residents with more choice, better access and more staff, but needs the government to do it. The Federal Government is optimistic about the proposed reforms but have yet to commit to process and timeline. The State government likes the idea of reform but is worried about getting slapped with the bill.

Julia Gillard has promised aged care reform in her second term of government. It is now up to the aged care sector to keep the pressure on to make sure she delivers on this promise. In the words of ACAA CEO, Rod Young, “If the government doesn’t include aged care reform in 2012-2013 budget, it won’t be included in the 2013-2014 budget”. Time for aged care reform is now.

Ellis Jones specialises in developing creative and effective marketing and communications campaigns for the health and ageing industry. Find out more about Ellis Jones’ approach to health and aged care marketing.