Is the aged residential care sector underfunded? And will it see an increase in funding? Associate Health Minister Jenny Salesa, who opened the three-day New Zealand Aged Care Association Conference attended by more than 550 people over 22-24 October, deftly answered with a sideways offering: “When we look at the overall use and our ageing population, it is definitely something we need to look at. It is something that should be adequately funded.”
There was also no clear answer to the question of whether the sector would see an increase in funding, which would require working through the Funding Model Review’s recommendations, policy considerations and the Budget 2020 process.
However, Minister Salesa said achieving equitable access was a top priority in health for the Government.
“It is vital to ensure that all New Zealanders have equitable access to care. Asset testing of residents and government picking up the difference, under this approach no one should be denied access to care.
“DHBs are the sector’s main funder and expect to fund $1.2 billion this fiscal year, 8% of the total budget – it is important this is used to advantage.”
The Rt Hon Winston Peters, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of New Zealand First was more forthcoming when asked if he believes the sector is underfunded.
“Profoundly so, yes.”
He also promised the issue of funding would be “part of the ongoing dialogue” as the Government works through how substantial the existing $7.5 billion surplus is and plans Budget 2020.
Minister Peters reinforced that the Government, through its immigration policy changes including the employer-led visa framework, is committed to ensuring businesses were able to get workers while also committing to training and supporting New Zealanders.
Speaking after Winston Peters, Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Simon Bridges was supportively noncommittal when asked about funding.
“I accept that there’s a case for greater funding, you need more funding. I’m not going to make a promise today. But what I can say is that under a National government, there would be three funding priorities; health, education and infrastructure and you are included in that.”
One of the other key questions that delegates put to Ministers was action on the pay disparity between nurses working in aged care and those in public hospital who currently earn, on average, $5 an hour more.
Minister Salesa acknowledged that the DHB Multi-Employer Collective Agreement for nurses had drawn nurses away from the aged residential care sector and there is a need to ensure the sector can recruit and retain enough nurses.
“This is an issue Ministry of Health is working on with DHBs. Part of the complication is that aged care facilities are not government owned. We are working through the issues of how to address this.”
Minister Peters was clear that nursing pay “should be parallel.”
Simon Bridges: “I know it’s an issue. I know we can do better. It requires a policy. By the time you have your conference next year, I will have an answer for you.”
Bridges was also strongly focused on immigration policy as a solution for the sector’s workforce challenges.
“If we had unemployment of 10% it would be a different story. But it’s 4% and I know it’s not very PC to say, but many are not workforce-ready.
“If we want decent aged care, immigration is part of it. We get that and would ensure the policy settings enable it.”
Bridges also promised a National government would have a ‘bonfire of regulations’ to ease the compliance burden on the sector and “make a case for tax relief”.
Green Party spokesperson Jan Logie reinforced her party’s support for an Aged Care Commissioner but acknowledged industry concerns about the duplication of functions that an extra agency might create. Ms Logie said the processes for consumers to make complaints needed to be clearer. In praising the sector for “the tremendous work you do in caring for our New Zealand’s older, vulnerable population”, Ms Logie said staffing levels were a concern and emphasised her party’s support for a review of sector standards. While not being forthcoming on actual budget increases for aged residential care (ARC), Ms Logie said the funding of core social infrastructure was a Green Party priority.