There is little outright political backing for a bill introduced into the Senate to mandate minimum staff-to-resident ratios in aged care, although there is broad support to address the workforce issues it highlights.
Justice Party Senator Derryn Hinch introduced a private member’s bill on Wednesday to amend the Aged Care Act to introduce a mandated ratio of skilled staff to residents in all aged care facilities.
He is proposing that the minimum “adequate and safe ratio” of appropriately skilled staff to care recipients be mandated in the Quality of Care Principles and based on the number of residents receiving care and the type and level of care provided at the facility.
The Aged Care Amendment (Ratio of Skilled Staff to Care Recipients) Bill 2017 is seeking “to enhance the level of care provided by aged care facilities nation-wide,” Mr Hinch told the Senate.
“The task of calculating a safe and specific ratio, including providing for variables such as day and night shifts, higher and lower care residents, and for metropolitan, rural and regional areas, should be undertaken by the Department of Health in consultation with the aged care sector, and included in the Quality of Care Principles,” he said.
Providers currently have an obligation to have sufficient appropriately skilled and qualified staff but the number is flexible to allow for differing care needs of residents and other characteristics of a facility such as its location.
During the bill’s second reading and debate on Thursday, Mr Hinch highlighted issues around quality of care and infection control as depicted in recent media reports and told the Senate he had received “damning emails from aged care workers saying things like ‘we are too scared to speak out about ratios, about what we see and what we know.’”
Although there is broad acceptance of the workforce issues and support for change, the Australian Greens and the government told AAA they would not back the bill while the Opposition and the Nick Xenophon Team did not offer a clear position.
Australian Greens spokesperson for ageing Senator Rachel Siewert acknowledged Senator Hinch’s attempt to address the workforce issue but said the Australian Greens could not support the bill in its current form.
“The Australian Greens acknowledges that the current mix of aged care workers to clients in a lot facilities is too low and that this needs to be addressed,” Siewert told AAA.
“We urge the government to implement the recommendations in the Senate inquiry into the Future of Australia’s aged care sector workforce. At the very least there needs to be a registered nurse present in all aged care facilities at all times, 24/7,” Senator Siewert said.
Similarly Shadow Minister for Ageing Julie Collins welcomed Senator Hinch’s input on the issue and noted the need for action.
“Labor supports the intent behind this bill to ensure adequate, safe and appropriately skilled aged care staffing,” Ms Collins told AAA.
“We welcome Senator Hinch’s engagement on this issue and will work with him, unions, providers and consumers to continue developing an evidence-based approach to aged care staffing.”
She chided the current government for “four years of inaction on aged care workforce development”, a point which the government disagreed with in its response.
“The government will not be supporting the bill, as there are too many questions that remain unanswered, and we are already taking meaningful steps to tackle the key issues the bill seeks to address,” Minister for Aged Care Ken Wyatt told AAA.
He said the bill failed to identify how the mandatory staff ratio would be calculated or the additional costs that would be imposed on aged care providers or consumers, and did not take into account the unique workforce challenges faced by rural, regional and remote providers and the unintended consequences this bill could have on them.
Mr Wyatt pointed to aged care reviews underway and under consideration plus the $1.9 million it committed in May towards the development of an industry-led workforce strategy among the steps it was taking.
A spokesperson for the Nick Xenophon Team told AAA the party had not yet formalised a position on the bill.
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