Thursday, 8 September 2022
Aged Care Amendment (Implementing Care Reform) Bill 2022; Second Reading
Like all Australians, I want to see care for our elderly improved where possible and considered deeply. After all, it is something that affects us all. Yesterday in the House I had the privilege of seconding the amendment moved by the member for Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie. She's a strong advocate for regional Australia, and I trust that her amendment will ensure senior Australians receive better quality care for what they pay, and it will make it more difficult for vultures who wish to take advantage of our most vulnerable.
My contention is not with the government's proposal to cap fees, making aged care more affordable for Australian families, or to improve the availability of information for senior Australians to make informed decisions. However, I do take issue with schedule 1 of the Aged Care Amendment (Implementing Care Reform) Bill 2022, which proposes to establish a responsibility for providers of residential aged care to ensure that a registered nurse is on site 24 hours a day seven days a week by July 2023.
Our nurses have worked tirelessly on the front line through the COVID-19 pandemic, protecting lives and keeping Australians safe. I would especially like to recognise the incredible care given by our nurses in Fowler in supporting a particularly vulnerable elderly population. Some of the people they cared for did not speak English as a first language and others did not speak English at all, adding to the complexity and stress already being experienced during the pandemic. We will never be able to thank these nurses enough.
Despite nurses having been immensely overworked during the last few years, the government proposes to have skilled nurses on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I do not harbour concerns over the validity of this proposal. Rather, I'm worried that not enough consideration has been put into how we will support these nurses and how we will expand the number of nurses available for this demanding job. This government needs to be careful to not simply throw money at situations. Detailed planning needs to be put in place as to how new nurses will be brought into the industry, how they will be trained and how these skilled workers will be retained.
Currently, the proposed staffing standards are pitched well above what can be provided by aged-care facilities. The government has stated that nearly 900 new registered nurses will be required to meet the new standards. However, the Aged and Community Care Providers Association has estimated that the sector will instead need 1,440 registered nurses to meet the new staffing requirements. The government's proposal, therefore, considers the minimum requirements and does not take into account the COVID fatigue of a large portion of our nursing workforce.
My constituents, like many around the country, struggle to find and afford care, either for themselves or their parents. Recently I had a constituent write to me, outlining the struggles she had in finding a home-care nurse for her father, Anthony Best. Anthony is 90 years old and suffers from macular degeneration. He was assessed for the Commonwealth Home Support Program through the My Aged Care framework; however, he received no further assistance. His daughter Louise managed to find an at-home nurse; however, the standard of care was not what was expected. Due to shortages of quality nurses, the care provider was sometimes unable to provide a nurse at all, and at other times the level of care was not what was required. In Louise's words, 'The system is broken.' While the government proposes to increase the workload of nurses in our communities, they have failed to outline how these nurses will be supported so that stories like Anthony's can be avoided.
Additionally, regional electorates have already raised concerns around staffing and the lack thereof. My community of Fowler is similar in that sense. We will see a skills shortage, as we need aged-care providers who are not only qualified but also can cater to our non-English-speaking residents.
There is a cultural and language barrier that needs to be overcome. Knowledge is often disseminated by community groups, friends and family, as opposed to formal channels. This was evident during the COVID testing challenges, in which misinformation was rife among non-English-speaking communities. Our healthcare system can and should do better for CALD communities.
Our community of Fowler is a very diverse electorate with a growing population in the south-west corridor and a low expectation of the aged-care system. The widening of capacity constraints in the aged-care system is being compounded in Fowler. Many view aged care as having only one option—choosing to place their elderly family members in aged-care facilities—without understanding that there are other options to support the elderly and keep them at home as long as possible.
The CALD community have strong family ties, evident through family compositions that are of multiple generations—for example, having grandparents, parents and children in the same household. They are also generally reluctant to move their elderly away from the home. Services such as shopping trips or GP visits would go a long way towards supporting these families, without the need to relocate their elderly fully. Matching these offerings would alleviate demand on full-time aged-care facilities.
I also point to another of my constituents, Mr Thang from St Johns Park. Mr Thang currently lives with his wife and daughter. He came to our office recently, inquiring after nursing-home places for when he is unwell and immobile. He is worried he will not have the funds to secure a place in the nursing home that speaks his language. He says it will cost him $200,000 to move into an aged-care home and fears this could cripple his family. Therefore, I support the home-care package program, which supports older people with complex care needs at home so they can be closer to their families.
Providing alternative aged-care options will alleviate pressures on aged-care homes and ensure families can stay together as a unit. But families that have tried to care for their elderly, if possible, at home do not have enough access to resources or financial support available to our electorate. Fowler constituents face challenges in the understanding of certain aged-care services offered and how to access them.
Beds available in aged-care facilities that cater to the CALD community are very limited, such as those that cater for cultural dietary requirements and multilingual staff. Recognition of overseas qualifications could alleviate this pressure on our aged-care facilities that will now have to provide 24/7 care.
Refugees and migrants are more than just their harrowing stories of escaping war-torn countries. There are skilled professionals. There are also qualified nurses and doctors. While the government looks to bringing in a further 35,000 skilled migrants to our country, to tackle the skills shortage, I ask: why not look in our own backyard first? In my electorate of Fowler we have many migrants and refugees who have skilled qualifications from their homelands. Unfortunately, many do not have the paperwork or evidence to back up their qualifications. Speaking from experience, when you are fleeing persecution, violence or war you are not thinking about the university degree paperwork or your qualification documents; you are thinking about how to save your life and the lives of your loved ones.
According to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, current recognition of the prior-learning process is complex and lengthy, which can be difficult for someone who has no knowledge of how our government works. They recommend a new skills assessment system, for people without evidence of qualifications, against an established benchmark, which should be combined with tailored courses and employment placements to identify their gaps in knowledge.
We are wasting the potential of a huge group of people who are ready and willing to work. I commend upskilling our community, and offering more government funded courses at TAFE would be a good alternative to just university courses. I point to countries like Canada, which fast tracked visas for refugee nurses in the pandemic. They hope to expand their Foreign Credential Recognition Program, with the aim of employing an extra 11,000 overseas-trained healthcare workers a year.
Furthermore, those who are seeking asylum could wait up to five years for their applications to be processed. During this time they are kept on punitive bridging visas, which leave them in purgatory, unable to work or study. I appreciate that the Labor government has committed to reducing this delay in visa processing; however, more action is needed to tackle the crisis at our doorstep. Over 100,000 people are currently seeking asylum. While they wait for their visas to be processed, many cannot access social services, do not have the right to work or do not have the right to study. There is no access to higher education and all are excluded from subsidised funding for apprenticeships, training and certifications. If we are to look at reforming TAFE as part of Jobs and Skills Australia, we must also acknowledge that shorter and more practical technical courses could open opportunities to a wider cohort of staff and accelerate the supply to industry.
Age pensioners who are alone and take care of themselves are reluctant to seek medical treatment, due to financial constraints. The recent increase in GPs not bulk-billing is accelerating this, which leads to their health deteriorating and adds to the demands on aged-care services. With cost-of-living pressures, we cannot expect our elderly and vulnerable to break the budget just to get simple healthcare services.
We have also received many phone calls from age pensioners who have had concerns regarding having to pay out of pocket to see their local GPs. While I commend the government for acting in aged care and continuing the reform by the previous government, this cannot become a tokenistic gesture to stop the cries for help from senior Australians, nurses and the families that just want affordable and quality care for their loved ones.
For too long, in this House, have grand spectacles been the way of government after government to ease the pressure on them from the Australian people. Now is the time to act. Now is the time to create long-lasting and meaningful change in a sector that has been neglected and forgotten for far too long. I will continue to hold the government to account beyond the implementation of this bill, and I will continue to fight for senior Australians and the frontline workers who wake up every day and put on their scrubs to look after our most vulnerable.
When I came to Australia I was told of the Australian dream. I was told you could achieve the dream to own a home and raise a family if you contributed to your country and worked hard. Part of that dream is that when you get older you will be cared for. I will not let Australians who have spent the entirety of their lives working to be robbed of that dream.