The Australian government has the chance to make a lasting impact on the lives of older Australians next week when it announces its proposed budget in response to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety’s final report.
The Royal Commission urged the government to provide greater access to support services for older people living at home, including clearing the waiting list for home care packages. While the government announced funding for an additional 10,000 home care packages last December, that’s well short of the nearly 100,000 Australians on waiting lists as of September 2020. Having the choice to live at home longer is critically important for the autonomy of older people and should be a priority in this budget.
The government should also ensure the budget includes adequate funding for staffing inside nursing homes. The Royal Commission’s final report sets out minimum staffing times for qualified staff in aged care facilities. By July 2022, aged care providers will be required to provide at least 200 minutes of care per day, with at least 40 minutes provided by a registered nurse. By July 2024, there should be at least one registered nurse on site at all times.
Currently, many aged care facilities have staffing levels well below what experts consider sufficient. A 2019 Human Rights Watch report documented that this contributes to abuses such as the use of chemical restraint, using drugs to control the behavior of residents without a therapeutic purpose. Adequate staff and training are key to providing person-centered support in aged care facilities.
The Australian Medical Association and Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation have also called on the government to mandate staff ratios in aged care facilities in this budget, including a 24/7 registered nurse presence in all facilities.
By adopting these expert groups’ recommendations, the government would begin to address ongoing problems of understaffed facilities. The devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted systemic understaffing and job insecurity in Australia’s aged care facilities, where three-quarters of Covid-19 deaths have occurred.
The Royal Commission’s final report followed 18 major aged care reviews in Australia. The chronic issues plaguing the aged care system are well known. Now is the time to act.