2021 in review: a challenging year for aged care

The aged care sector has faced a myriad of challenges throughout 2021, but providers have shown their perseverance in yet another difficult year.

This year has seen the release of the aged care royal commission’s final report, the government’s response to said report and another year of COVID-19 outbreaks and lockdowns.

These are just some of the significant events that took place during 2021, a year many would describe as yet another challenging one for the aged care sector.

The year kicked off with news in early January that the states and territories would follow the Commonwealth’s advice and not force aged care workers to have the COVID-19 vaccine, despite being able to issue public health directions enforcing individuals to be vaccinated.

Then in mid-February, the Federal Government announced the aged care sector’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout would commence on 22 February. At the time, the government said it expected to vaccinate 30,000 residents and staff at 240 aged care facilities in the first week of the rollout and reach all 183,000 residents and 339,000 staff at more than 2,600 facilities in six weeks.

The government also promised on-site vaccinations to residents and staff through an in-reach workforce provider.

However, the vaccine strollout as it become known was already behind schedule after the first week, having only reached one third of projected vaccinations (10,070 residents and very few staff).

Not long after, aged care royal commissioners Tony Pagone and Lynelle Briggs presented the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety to Governor-General David Hurley on 26 February. The eight-volume final report Care, Dignity and Respect was tabled in Parliament on 1 March.

Tony Pagone, Lynelle Briggs and David Hurley

The report, released almost two-and-a-half years after the inquiry was announced, proposes 148 recommendations to fundamentally reform the aged care system.

Key recommendations call for a new rights-based Aged Care Act, a minimum staffing standard in residential care homes, funding that meets the cost of high-quality care and a registration scheme for personal care workers.

The final report was welcomed by the sector, but some stakeholders believed the report didn’t go far enough in some areas including in allied health while others raised concerns about registering personal care workers.

The beginning of April saw the introduction of the first stage of the Serious Incident Response Scheme, after providers raised concerns about the model just six weeks earlier when the SIRS legislation passed through Parliament.

A week later and two months after it commenced, the aged care vaccine rollout was nowhere near its target and staff were told to source jabs from a general practitioner. This left many staff unimmunised despite them being a priority group along with residents and caused frustration among stakeholders.

On May 11, when Treasurer Josh Frydenberg handed down the 2021-22 Federal Budget he announced a five-year $17.7 billion aged care package – the largest ever – in response to the royal commission’s report.

Scott Morrison releasing the final report of the royal commission

The government also released its response to the report, accepting 126 of the 148 recommendations and rejecting six. It added its support to an alternative on four recommendations and said it was still considering 12.

While many stakeholders welcomed the government’s aged care large budget response generally, many were disappointed in its lack of action on workforce issues including wages.

Shortly after, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation followed in the footsteps of the Health Services Union and launched a work value application with the Fair Work Commission to lift the aged care nursing and care worker wages by 25 per cent.  

Towards the end of June, when just a third of residential aged care workers had received either two (16 per cent) or one dose (17 per cent) of a COVID-19 vaccine, the government backtracked on its earlier decision.

COVID-19 vaccines became mandatory for residential aged care staff

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that residential aged care staff would need at least once vaccination by 17 September to continue working in aged care homes as Sydney went into lockdown due to escalating outbreaks related to the Delta strain of COVID-19.   

While the news was welcomed by most, stakeholders continued to raise concerns about the vaccine access issues aged care staff were facing around the country.

Following these ongoing concerns, a group of 11 peak organisations representing aged care providers and workers successfully petitioned the government in July to implement five key principles to support a quick and safe rollout strategy to the aged care workforce.

Meanwhile aged care providers experienced continued lockdowns and several homes had outbreaks in NSW, Victoria, and the ACT for the first time.

This resulted in many aged care providers launching rapid antigen testing trials to protect residents and staff including Abberfield Aged Care Facility and Whiddon.

Whiddon rolled out rapid antigen tests at its Easton Park home in Glenfield, NSW

On their coat-tails and research findings from Whiddon the Federal Government launched a rapid antigen testing pilot for aged care homes in areas of concern, starting with Uniting NSW ACT’s home in Bankstown in Sydney’s south-west.

It grew into a rapid antigen-program, which is still running today to supply kits to homes in areas of concern.

The 2020 Aged Care Workforce Census Report finally dropped in September, showing that the aged care workforce is getting younger. It also highlighted that direct care roles are on the rise, but workforce attraction and retention challenges continue.  

In November an independent review of COVID-19 outbreaks in residential aged care homes outlined nine key lines of defence to minimise risk of outbreaks and made 38 recommendations, including phasing out shared bedrooms and bathrooms. All recommendations were accepted by the Federal Government.

On 8 November, the government kicked off the aged care booster vaccine program, which is “well ahead of schedule” more than a month later, according to the Department of Health.

The Federal Government also established the National Aged Care Advisory Council and announced its 17 members in November, almost five months after it was expected to commence. 

ACSA and LASA have agreed to establish a single entity to represent aged care providers

In December, aged care peak bodies Aged and Community Services Australia and Leading Age Services Australia announced their commitment to form a new single entity to improve representation and deliver better care outcomes for aged care recipients.

The peaks expect to make a formal recommendation on a new sector representation and development model to members by March 2022.

The year 2021 also saw several aged care leaders announce their resignations, including Anglicare Sydney CEO Grant Millard in March, Catholic Healthcare managing director David Maher and RSL LifeCare CEO Laurie Leigh in April, ACSA CEO Patricia Sparrow in September, Brightwater Care Group CEO Jennifer Lawrence in November and Meaningful Ageing Australia CEO Ilsa Hampton in December.

Presbyterian Aged Care CEO Paul Sadler announced he was stepping down from the organisation in February and Feros Care CEO Jennene Buckley left at the end of June. Both have since launched their own aged care consulting business.

However, Mr Sadler announced he would return as CEO of ACSA following Ms Sparrow’s departure.

Despite many executives stepping down, the sector welcomed a number of new aged care leaders, including Karen Crouch as Feros Care CEO, Karen Borg as CEO of Catholic Healthcare, Tim Thorndyke as UPA of New South Wales CEO, Olivia Wood as PAC CEO and Michelle Sloane as SummitCare’s CEO.

As the end of the year draws near, lockdowns and restrictions have largely lifted and most aged care homes, and states, are open to visitors with varying requirements.

These are just some of the events concerning aged care this year. And while 2021 has been yet another challenging year for aged care providers, it also marked a way forward on the urgent reform needed through the aged care royal commission’s final report to hopefully bring about real and lasting change.

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Tags: aged care, aged care 2021, COVID19, covid19 outbreaks, royal commission into aged care quality and safety, year in review,

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