“We have to own the message”: aged care providers unite to push Fed Govt on workforce and immigration

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A group of 13 providers, led by RFBI CEO Frank Price, has warned the Government that providers will be unable to meet shifts – let alone the new 200 direct care minutes requirement – within the next 18 months unless drastic action is taken to increase wages, incentivise nurses and carers and bring foreign workers into the Australian aged care system.

Frank, along with 12 co-signatories – Allambie Heights Village, Carrington Care, IRT, Masonic Care Tasmania, Maroba, Scalabrini, Masonic Care WA, Uniting, Warrigal Care, Twilight Aged Care, Whiddon, United Protestants Assoc and McClean Care – wrote to Minister Colbeck on 20 September to request a meeting, proposing a suite of solutions including:

  • increasing wages,
  • incentivising student nurses,
  • reskilling prospective carers,
  • investment in robots and automation; and
  • a plan for foreign workers to fill the void on a short- and long-term basis.

On 30 September, Frank, IRT CEO Patrick Reid and Whiddon CEO Chris Mamarelis met online with the Minister, who asked for more information about the plan, which would see internationally qualified nurses (IQNs) come to Australia as carers and work towards gaining Australian recognition as registered nurses.

Currently, only enrolled nurses and registered nurses are currently included in the Immigration Skilled Occupation List – there is no mention of aged care workers.

400 workers over three years

The group proposed a three-year pilot program to source and introduce 400 suitably qualified workers from overseas into their facilities, including the provision of housing, under a new Aged Care Worker Visa.

“Near the end of the first meeting, it seemed as if the penny dropped,” said Frank. “We said, ‘We can do this. We can accommodate these workers. It’s not going to cost you anything. All you have to do is let us bring them in’.”

But during a second meeting in October, the Minister appeared to have moved away from the idea, stating there were concerns about the ethics of taking critical staff out of healthcare systems in other nations.

Yet the Government has announced plans to bring in 2,000 overseas nurses and doctors to work in the wider healthcare system.

UK offers special visa to recruit overseas nurses

The group of providers point to the UK where a new visa has been introduced to allow workers from countries including the Philippines and India to enter – with a code of ethics and specific agreements with the countries – in order to recruit nurses for the UK national health system.

Australia could do the same, argues Frank.

“The Government has been given a suite of options as to how they can improve. If you don’t want to import people in, then let’s start talking about the registered nurses. Let’s start talking about subsidizing their education, so we attract more people to become RNs,” said Frank.

“There is no discussion. No planning. Nothing. All that is happening is one provider headhunting staff from another, to fill their rosters, and we are just going to face more and more sanctions, because we are unable to fill our rosters.”

Providers need to speak up

The Australian Aged Care Collaboration (AACC) has taken up the cause – but Frank says other aged care providers need to make their voices heard too.

“We have to own the message. If more aged care providers are speaking with the same message, it’s going to resonate with the families, it’s going to resonate with the community, and at some stage, it’s going to resonate with the local federal members.”

A Committee for Economic Development of Australia report released earlier this year estimates at least 110,000 extra workers will be needed over the next decade – that is around 17,000 more workers every year.

With a Federal election now rumoured for March 2022 – just over three months away – and labour market shortages only predicted to increase, is now the time to the sector to stand up and demand change?

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