After more than 5 years leading the industry peak body LASA, CEO Sean Rooney spoke with Inside Ageing (IA) about joining forces with ACSA and the ongoing challenges facing the sector.
IA: The impact of COVID on aged care providers and residents has been arguably the most significant of any industry in Australia to date. We are now two years into the pandemic and cases are now higher than ever.
- What are your members telling you they need as a priority to be able to get through this wave?
- What does LASA consider the most urgent priorities from both state and Commonwealth Government to support providers through this?
- To what extent do you think COVID has altered or is continuing to alter, the future of aged care in Australia?
Sean: Our Members are telling us that they are stretched to the limit working to keep their residents safe from COVID-19. They are faced daily with immediate problems relating to the pandemic such as staff shortages and the lack of available surge workforce, particularly in regional and rural areas. Of critical concern is the shortage of RATs and PPE, the cost being borne by providers who have to source their own often at exorbitant prices as they wait for supplies ordered from the government. Often those deliveries, when they do arrive, fall well short of what was originally ordered.
Many homes are facing difficulties with waste management with a lack of timely collection and facing extra costs for removal or storage. All the while, during the pandemic, providers are saddled with time-consuming reporting requirements taking up staff time when they are needed to cover the shortfall elsewhere.
The most urgent and critical area is the workforce – nothing can be delivered without fixing the workforce first and foremost. The community transmission of the Omicron variant over the past two months have had a devastating impact on individuals and services. There have been persistent staff shortages over many years in aged care but the pandemic has turned this into a full-blown crisis that reaches across the sector.
Some providers report that up to 29% of shifts are unable to be filled and staff are working overtime to try and fill these gaps at double and triple rates. Emergency staff management plans have been developed and implemented. Staff across the board have shown their dedication in putting in extra hours to cover vacant shifts but many are exhausted after long periods of dealing with anxious and lonely residents forced to remain in their rooms, unable to see families and loved ones.
While COVID-19 has highlighted structural deficiencies in aged care it has also raised standards in infection control, vaccination rates and upskilling of workers. At the same time, it has also highlighted inconsistencies in the approach to dealing with health system emergencies with regards to aged care service provision between federal and state jurisdictions.
Members are also concerned that industry reforms are occurring during the current operational crisis. At a time when many providers are on their knees operationally and financially, they are expected to divert staff to dealing with the demands of reform initiatives alongside operational priorities and non-essential reporting obligations. It is also a concern there is a lack of consultation by the Government on reform and the absence of any meaningful collaboration with the people who actually deliver the services.
IA: Following the announcement that LASA and ACSA are committed to merging and noting that information will go to members in March, what timeframe are you working towards for the transition to be complete?
Sean: ACSA and LASA are committed to working together to realise a new and better way to represent and develop our sector. LASA and ACSA Executive Teams have been meeting and working through how this might be achieved and developing the ‘case for change’ for our Members’ consideration. This also includes engaging with other relevant provider groups. We are planning to conduct a webinar in February for Members from both organisations to come together to explore the opportunities and advantages of a single, industry association for aged care. Following this, further detailed planning will be conducted ahead of a formal proposition being put to the members of our respective organisations.
The move for a unified aged care industry voice was noted by the Royal Commission in its final report which called for more collaboration in sector representation and development.
IA: Do you anticipate the Australian Aged Care Collaboration (AACC) will continue as a lobbying alliance once the merger has occurred?
Sean: The Australia Aged Care Collaboration has been an effective vehicle to bring about a unified voice for the aged care sector. It has been successful in the past 12 months and has formed the basis for the next move towards a united, single industry representative for aged care providers. We would be looking to ensure that the attributes of collaborative work established under the aegis of the AACC continue, but what final form that takes is yet to be decided.
IA: The recent Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook did not include any additional funding for the aged care workforce, which is something the AACC had been lobbying for. What level of funding is required to fix the workforce crisis in aged care and what initiatives would this support?
Sean: The situation prior to Omicron was already showing a continuing decline in provider viability. The funding provided to services is not adequate to consistently meet the care needs of older Australians, something that was reflected in the Royal Commission final report and in the final submissions where it was noted that the diminishing subsidies paid by the Government left the aged care operators having to increasingly provide higher levels of service with fewer resources. Something has to give. Added to the lack of funding, residential aged care providers have been hit with declining occupancy rates in residential aged care. LASA is currently talking to the government on all of these issues.
In January, the AACC joined the ACTU and care sector unions jointly called on the Government to urgently introduce a wage boost to secure the aged care workforce in the form of a COVID-19 wage payment paid directly to workers. Aged care staff are exhausted and burnt out, with many working for days around the clock. Resignations due to fatigue and feeling undervalued have begun occurring. It is just the beginning, there is no adequate staffing safety net.
IA: You joined LASA as its first CEO following the merger of its state entities under a single national structure in June 2016. What are you most proud of during your time at the helm?
Sean: Ask me that question after I’ve retired!
IA: Do you have a message for the aged care industry that you would like to share as we begin 2022?
Sean: Firstly, I want to acknowledge the heroic efforts of age care workers and aged care services during this pandemic. They are doing all they can to keep older vulnerable Australians safe from the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
The widespread, and rapid, community transmission of COVID has been very challenging for aged care residents, home care support clients, and staff who look after them.
As a sector, we need to be assured that quality standards are being maintained at all times and that begins with ensuring that services are properly resourced and enabled to deliver the care that older Australians need and deserve, and to keep them and the people who care for them safe from COVID-19.
This means making sure that a surge workforce is available to support staff who are stretched to the limit. It also means PPE and RAT supplies are available at all times and that older Australians and aged care staff are given priority for COVID booster shots.
We need to support our aged care staff and properly reward them for their extra efforts, for the pressure they are under, and for the added risks they are taking as part of the frontline in the fight against COVID.
We are continuing to work with the government on a strategy for workforce reform.
IA: Thank you