The past 18 months has been extremely difficult for the aged care sector, being an industry that was already facing a systemic failure on a massive scale, poor-quality assurance, financial strain, and critical staffing shortages. All of which puts those who depend on the aged care system most at risk. These issues affect what is happening in the aged care sector and what aged care providers and residents are facing during the pandemic, explains Attwood Marshall Lawyers Wills and Estates Senior Associate and Accredited Aged Care Professional, Debbie Sage.
The National Cabinet agreed to mandate vaccinations for residential aged care workers as a condition of working in an aged care facility earlier this year. The deadline for mandatory vaccinations for aged care workers was set for 17th September 2021. Although vaccination rates for aged care workers is reported to be above 90% in almost all areas of Australia, there is a fear that even losing a small percentage of workers because of the mandatory vaccination requirement will have significant consequences. Any loss of workers in this sector would impact residents and facilities as staff shortages were already a major issue prior to the pandemic.
The consequences have already been experienced at some facilities, with reports that staff at the Southern Cross Care regional aged care facilities in northern NSW have been forced out of jobs since that September 17 deadline hit, with a small number of staff refusing to have the vaccination.
Mandatory vaccines are just the tip of the iceberg contributing to the aged care crisis in Australia. The Royal Aged Care Commission recommended staffing improvement such as mandatory staffing hours for all facilities, and a minimum staff time per resident be set to improve the quality and safety of the care being given. This was designed to help keep and attract workers in the sector, however one of the primary changes that will need to be implemented will be to provide better training, wages, and professional development for aged care workers. A pre-requisite accreditation will also be established, including courses which people can complete to be better equipped for working in the aged care industry.
In a recent survey conducted by CompliSpace, it was reported that one in five aged care workers are ready to leave the profession within the next 12 months as a result of poor pay and extreme stress. CompliSpace reported that some 47,000 workers, which represents approximately 20% of the workforce, will likely exit the aged care industry within the year. This data shows just how imperative it is to hold on to aged care staff, while also building a better platform to encourage new workers to enter the industry.
Living in an aged care facility during lockdown
Everyone has a right to age with dignity and have access to the care they need. Unfortunately, COVID continues to isolate the elderly and restrict their loved ones from visiting them when there is a risk of community transmission. Although we have been relatively lucky on the Gold Coast in that we have had minimal lockdowns compared to those south of the border, for the many aged care facilities that are positioned close to the border, this has meant that anyone who has relatives located on either side of the border may have been locked out and no longer have access to their mother, father, or grandparents.
Sydney is currently working on a plan for returning visitors to all aged care facilities now that vaccination targets are being achieved. It is important that we not only look after the physical health of aged care residents and protect them from infection, but also implement effective plans to ensure aged care residents’ mental health and wellbeing is not also being impacted. Isolation is only going to amplify mental health issues.
Chief Executor of Peak Body Aged Care Services Australia, Paul Sadler, has stated that ACSA was working with other providers and consumer peak bodies on revising the visitation code which was created last year in response to COVID-19. Rapid antigen testing may play a big role in the next phase to help open aged care facilities to visitors once more.
Some aged care residents have tried to relocate to a different facility because of the fact their loved ones are situated just across the border. However, moving to a new aged care facility remains difficult, especially if you are attempting to move to another state.
For example, with the current rules in place, if a resident does want to relocate from New South Wales to Queensland, they are going to need to first find a facility with a bed available and one that is prepared to keep that bed available until they can get across the border. That aged care resident in NSW will need to obtain an exemption to get into QLD and provide the necessary paperwork to prove that they are a new incoming resident moving into the state.
This process is currently taking up to five weeks or longer. There also remains the threat of potential hotel quarantine, which as you can imagine would be quite distressing for seniors who rely on routine, their familiar surrounds and most likely frequent care/medical assistance. It is yet to be understood if this would be a requirement for someone in aged care.
Aged care quality and safety
The final report from the Aged Care Royal Commission, titled “Care, Dignity and Respect”, was tabled on 1 March 2021. That’s over 7 months ago. Some new initiatives and programs have come into effect; however, it is expected to take several years before the sector gets its complete overhaul.
There is concern that the issue about aged care reform has disappeared from national conversation in the wake of the pandemic. There are groups lobbying to call for faster implementation of certain recommendations, such as ensuring a registered nurse is always onsite at residential aged care facilities. Currently the deadline to make this happen is set for mid-2024, but the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation has called upon the government to make it happen sooner.
In May 2021, the government took an important step to deliver its reforms to aged care by introducing the first legislation in response to the Royal Commission. The plan is set to be a five-year, five pillar reform plan. The Federal Budget 2021-22 put aged care as a centerpiece in response to the Royal Commission. $17.7 billion was set aside to address the systemic problems identified by the Royal Commission. Only time and future aged care budgets will tell whether the government will deliver the “once in a generation” reform that is so desperately needed.
What to expect in the near future: reform in the aged care sector
We can expect several key changes to commence from 1st July 2022. Some of the most significant changes to come include:
The revised Code of Conduct aims to give greater power to The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission to deal with information received about alleged breaches of the Act and take enforcement action for any breaches. They will also have the power to impose banning orders on aged care workers and governing persons of approved providers, prohibiting, or restricting them from being involved in certain activities. There is also the proposal that the Commission will be able to enforce civil penalties for anyone proven to breach a banning order.
The new employment screening regime will aim to ensure there is consistency throughout the country and that data collected during the screening process is held in an “Aged Care Screening Database”. Providers and employers who have been granted access to this database will be able to check the database and ensure aged care workers have the relevant clearance required upon entering the workforce or being hired at their facility.
Then there is the extension of The Serious Incident Response Scheme, which is an initiative to help prevent and reduce serious incidents of abuse and neglect. The current scheme only applies to residential aged care facilities however will extend to home care and flexible care in a home or community setting. All Australians have a right to live free from abuse and neglect and this scheme will hopefully strengthen aged care systems and reduce the risk of abuse and neglect, as well as build the skills of those who work in the aged care sector so that they are better equipped to respond to serious incidents such as these.
There are certainly more changes expected to also roll out mid next year, but these are just a few of the key reforms we can anticipate which aged care recipients will hopefully benefit from into the future.
We are here to help you with your transition to aged care
Attwood Marshall Lawyers have helped many clients navigate the complex aged care industry and various care options that are available. Our lawyers can provide clear advice to help you plan for the future.
For enquiries concerning transitioning to aged care, service agreements, or estate planning advice, please contact Wills & Estates and Aged Care Department Manager, Donna Tolley, on direct line 07 5506 8241, email [email protected] or freecall 1800 621 071 at any time.