TV interview with Minister Wells and Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon on 25 July 2022

Read the transcript of Minister Well's TV interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon discussing aged care, workforce, new legislation and the commonwealth games.

The Hon Anika Wells MP
Minister for Aged Care
Minister for Sport

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GREG JENNETT:

Well, looking ahead, there will be not one, but two pieces of aged care legislation put into the parliament this week. They are meant to change funding and standards of care, but managing COVID infections remains an even more pressing problem as numbers edge closer towards 1000 currently.

To discuss that, Aged Care and Sports Minister Anika Wells joined us here a short time ago.

Anika Wells, great to see you. Welcome back to the program. And, in person, here in the studio.

You do find yourself in the midst of what I think you've currently described as a crisis ongoing in aged care. What's the scale of that, the latest figures that you have on active outbreaks?

MINISTER FOR AGED CARE AND SPORTS ANIKA WELLS:

Greg, as of Friday, we have 983 active outbreaks in residential aged care facilities across the country. That obviously means thousands of people are affected. More than 6000 of our residents and more than 3000 of our workers.

JENNETT:

Okay, so the effect on workers is going to be really pronounced given those sort of numbers. What are you doing to plug the shifts?

WELLS:

Yep. So obviously there's been a lot of media about the ADF presence in aged care. That's something that the sector has asked to continue. So I was really grateful to the Defence Minister for allowing us to continue to have the ADF in aged care until the 30th of September just to make sure we can get everybody through this winter wave.

But I think it's important, important for us to note this is an extreme measure, it’s a desperate measure. Nobody wants our ADF troops deployed to aged care. They've got plenty of other important work to do.

So part of my job is getting us through this winter wave. Part of my job is turning the Queen Mary around and addressing these workforce shortages for the coming winter.

JENNETT:

Okay, well, why don't we break that down? Just continuing with the ADF component at the moment. The figure is up to 250 troops ongoing. How many would be on an average basis each week in homes at present?

WELLS:

That ebbs and flows depending on demand because what's happened since February when the ADF were moved into aged care is that the Department of Health and Ageing has put together a surge workforce and that workforce completed more than 2000 shifts last week, more than 1900 the week before.

So they're meant to be substantively filling the shift shortages and the ADF floats along the top depending on demand.

JENNETT:

So in authorising up to 250 through to the end of September, do you have any expectations on the actual number of personnel who might be in the homes?

WELLS:

Well, it's a bit of a mix. So mostly, there's clinical teams where we have clinically trained ADF troops, along with generalist duties troops and they move around from facility to facility again depending on demand.

But let's call a spade a spade here. It's not enough. This doesn't fill all the shifts. Any provider, any facility manager will tell you there are still shifts going short at people doing double shifts, people working back to back to back with no reprieve. Because it is a sector in crisis.

JENNETT:

Well, exactly. Exactly. This is at the margins, the ADF components. So what next? You've got a couple of bills coming in this week, but today they don't directly address the root problem here on staffing, do they?

WELLS:

Well, one of our election commitments does, which is getting aged care workers a pay rise, which is why one of the first things I did as the aged care minister was write with my other ministers to the Fair Work Commission to get permission to support an aged care pay rise.

That's due 8th of August, there’s hearings in September. We're hoping the commissioner will come back to us over summer about that. That is going to hopefully give workers a pay rise, currently you get more paid stacking shelves at Woolies.

And hopefully that will mean that people that have left the sector because they love the work but they just cannot afford to do it can come back. Also alongside other commitments like TAFE fee free places, more university places will hopefully build the pathway so that more people want to come and train and come to the sector.

JENNETT:

Although none of those is going to fix your immediate shortages in this calendar year anyway.

WELLS:

No, absolutely not. Well, nine years of neglect plus decades of I mean, really since the Howard Act in ’97 sort of set in train the absolute mess that we are trying to clean up now.

I don't think anybody is under any illusions about how difficult this, this problem is.

JENNETT:

Okay. So then there's also the option of importing workers, which could be a quick stopgap if in fact the visas could be processed. Yet we see some figures from Home Affairs through the Australian Financial Review today saying actually the number of qualified registered aged care nurses in that visa pipeline is minuscule - 32 out of 60,000.

What do you do to boost that figure?

WELLS:

I think it's great evidence for people that look to migration as some kind of silver bullet for aged care workforce shortages. There isn't a silver bullet for aged care workforce shortages. It's a complex problem that needs a considered solution we've said all along there's no one policy lever that we're going to be able to pull to fix this. We're going to have to pull a number of policy levers. I'm grateful to be working in a team of ministers who have carriage over things like that. But like you say, this isn't a problem we're fixing this winter. This is going to take years to fix.

JENNETT:

So apart from a wage increase, there's also a wholesale look at the whole the funding model, if you like, for providers. When is that likely to hit the parliament? It's not it's not in this opening couple of bills, is it?

WELLS:

It is. So I'm introducing two bills to the parliament this Wednesday morning, first mornings business for the Albanese government, aged care is a top priority. One of those bills will introduce a new funding model which has been long planned, should have gone through the previous parliament. Morrison government couldn't work with the Senate, so we're bringing it back to get it through for 1 October commencement date.

JENNETT:

Oh I see okay and how many dollars go with that when that comes into force? What does it actually mean for providers?

WELLS:

Well, it actually just reworks the funding model so that providers will receive more targeted funding for what the beds and needs in each facility actually look like.

JENNETT:

Do you say that makes any difference to management of the extreme crisis situation that they're all confronting now?

WELLS:

No, which is why the second bill is addressing some of the five election commitments that Labor made in aged care, which does go to addressing workforce issues. And the second bill starts to legislate the things that we promised Australians we would do. Things like 24/7 nurses, things like an increase to care minutes for every resident in aged care.

JENNETT:

Okay, understood. So all of which makes a pile of work for you in the aged care side of your portfolio, but then running concurrently with that, your sport responsibilities and the Commonwealth Games looming in Birmingham, you're not going. What's the thinking behind that?

WELLS:

Yeah, I took the difficult decision not to go to the Commonwealth Games after the passage of these bills through the Parliament. I'm grateful to Ben Houston in the Commonwealth Games Association for backing me in on that decision and looking after older Australians first, just while we get everybody through this winter wave.

Obviously anyone juggling two portfolios has to make decisions each day about what has priority. I'm grateful to the sports community understanding that I've got to get aged care through this winter wave first, and I really look forward to working with them in events to come.

JENNETT:

That won't be with any detriment to Victoria's hosting in 2026 that we don't have top level representation at these Games?

WELLS:

I would hope not. There are other state sports ministers, there's a big delegation from Australia going, including our 400-strong athletes. But Kieren Perkins, who is my Sports Commission CEO, is over there specifically representing me and the meetings that I would have had.

JENNETT:

With I'm sure you're in safe hands there. Anika Wells, thanks so much for joining us today.

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