In response to the nurses’ union’s calls for a review of aged-care sector standards and staffing levels, the New Zealand Aged Care Association (NZACA) says, “bring it on”, but the underlying issues need to be addressed first.

The New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) claims the Indicators for Safe Aged-Care and Dementia Care produced by Standards New Zealand, and widely used as a measure for staffing levels by the sector, are out-of-date and only voluntary.

“What the sector needs is for the Indicators to be reviewed and updated and then made compulsory as a minimum set of standards for all aged-care service providers in New Zealand,” says NZNO Industrial Advisor David Wait.

Wait says the Human Rights Commission’s Caring Counts report of 2012 recommended compulsory indicators, yet eight years later the recommendations haven’t been implemented.

“We’re still hearing unfortunate stories about standards of aged-care, and this is a source of considerable distress to some aged-care residents and their families.”

NZACA chief executive Simon Wallace takes exception to the continual focus on these “unfortunate stories”.

“We do not condone even one poor case of care…but actually those cases are very rare and we need to celebrate the very good job we do with the stretched resources that we have in looking after 36,000 New Zealanders,” says Wallace.

It is these “stretched resources” and other major issues facing the sector that need to be addressed by the Government before conversations can turn to standards and staffing levels, says Wallace.

“As an industry we are very happy to work in partnership with the unions and the government on staffing and standards – bring it on! But actually the government has got to come to the table and play its part here.”

Wallace says the aged care sector is facing a “dire shortage” of nurses, due to a number of factors. Rest homes are not funded adequately to remunerate their nurses to the same levels as those working in DHBs. Furthermore, the recent NZNO settlement is seeing nurses leave the aged care sector to take up DHB positions. And with aged-care nurses no longer on the migrant long-term skills shortage list, the shortage isn’t being filled by migrant nurses either.

Wallace says Government action on addressing immigration policy settings would immediately relieve some of the pressure on staffing.

“When you talk about safe staffing levels we’ve got to be able to recruit and retain staff,” he says, “This problem with nurses could be solved overnight by the government. They could put nurses on the long-term skills shortage list tomorrow.

“Even as a stop-gap measure that would solve the crisis that we have at the moment while we work out some longer term solutions with the DHBs, who are very supportive and acknowledge the issues the sector is facing.”

Some of those solutions could be around training more nurses in New Zealand, making aged care an attractive option for graduate nurses, and providing the sector with the resources to support those graduates.

But for the short-term, the NZACA will continue to lobby for a change in immigration policy settings to help relieve the current nurse shortage. The Association has made a submission, written to the Immigration Minister, and while it is prepared to wait for a response, so far none is forthcoming.

“We’ve been lobbying on immigration now for 12 months and we haven’t seen any change,” says Wallace.

“We want to partner with the unions. Standards – yeah, bring them on. Staffing levels – we can discuss those. But before we do that we’ve got to have the Government at the table to help solve the short-term issues that we’ve got now.”

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