We had heard that some aged care staff have been receiving ‘danger pay’ for working in Melbourne facilities with the worst coronavirus outbreaks – now confirmation from the Government.
Tuesday’s Senate enquiry into the Government’s COVID response has revealed that current spending on providing surge staff to aged care homes across Australia has only totaled $31.624 million.
As we reported here back in March, the Government provided $102 million to educate and train aged care workers in infection control and allow aged care providers to hire extra nurses and aged care workers in both residential and home care.
Many providers reported severe shortages of workers during the second wave in Melbourne as staff were forced to self-isolate because they had contracted the virus or had contact with a colleague or resident who had.
$2,500 a shift for ‘surge’ workers
The Chair of the enquiry, Labor Senator Katy Gallagher, appeared to consider that the Government had over-spent as a result of the limited tender arrangements it had with the surge workforce providers which include Aspen, Healthcare Australia, HealthX, Mable, RCSA, and Torrens.
In particular, Ms Gallagher noted that the Government’s $6.6 million six-month contract with online support worker platform Mable – which has delivered 2,644 shifts as of 25 September – equated to around $2,500 per shift.
“When I look at Mable, if it’s 6.6 million over 5 months, and it’s delivered 2640 shifts – I’m sure it’s been paid for other things – but that would equal about $2500 per shift that you’re paying for?”
“That … would seem extraordinary in aged care, when we know that their wages are so low normally. Have you put in place arrangements to monitor that?” she asked.
Deputy of Health Secretary Dr Brendan Murphy agreed that the Government had relaxed its normal procurement guidelines during the pandemic.
“There were a number of funding propositions that we rejected as not being value for money,” he replied. “But we simply did not have the time to go through a proper market testing process for a number of these things. As we come out of, particularly the Victorian second wave and we get back to normal, we are returning to our normal process.”
Department of Health won’t know the true cost until the bills come in
However, the Secretary conceded that the Government won’t know how much it has spent in total until it receives all the acquittals.
“We will use our internal audit processes to look at a number of these programs,” he said. “For a number of these programs, while there is a dollar amount that is allocated, it is not finally determined what will have been spent until we get all of the acquittals. With a number of those eye-watering amounts that you talk about, we won’t know how much will be spent until we get all the claims and go through the process of acquittal. Many of them will be underspent, and we have already repurposed some of the funding from some programs to others.”
Staff doubled in some facilities
In total, the Department said that surge providers had filled nearly 30,000 shifts and supplied more than 4,000 workers nationally.
Dr Murphy added that in major outbreaks, staffing levels were increased well above the normal baseline.
“With some of these outbreaks, they would have had almost double the staff, because, when you’re using PPE and nursing people in that situation, we expected them to be well staffed. We had some occasions in Victoria where there were as many staff as residents. We really did surge in the staff.”
But was this ‘surge’ enough? Let’s say there were 10 ‘surge’ staff on every shift with three shifts a day spread across 36 facilities (the figure cited by the Department witnesses).
That only adds up to just over nine days of ‘surge’ staffing for each facility.
Despite the “eye-watering” costs (Ms Gallagher’s words) paid for shifts, it seems like more of the cash could have been used.