Reporter: Peter McCutcheon

Source: ABC - The 7.30 Report, Peter McCutcheon

A new report commissioned by National Seniors shows the Australian aged care system struggling to cope with increasing demands and worrying declines in quality of care in nursing homes and in delivery of services.


KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: After weeks of uncertainty, the nation's political battlelines have now been finalised with the official swearing-in of the Gillard ministry and the unveiling of Tony Abbott's Opposition frontbench. In fact, they happened simultaneously today.

But one of the most challenging issues facing the nation was barely mentioned during the recent election campaign. Australia's aged care system, according to many in the industry, is struggling to cope with growing demand.

A report by the consultants Access Economics warns that the Australian Government has to start preparing now for a significant expansion of residential care places.

The paper, commissioned by the consumer group National Seniors also identifies a deterioration in nursing home quality of care and inefficiencies in service delivery.

Peter McCutcheon reports.

RON TYAS, CARER: I've got to be here, 24/7, you know. So it's pretty tough.

PETER MCCUTCHEON, REPORTER: The life of this semi-retired couple took a sad turn 18 months ago, when Maree Tyas was diagnosed with a Parkinson-like degenerative disease and Ron Tyas suddenly had take on the role of a full-time carer.

RON TYAS: Everything we've gotta do, the feeding, the washing, the ironing. I've got a few other things on so I don't get much spare time.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: Ron Tyass is not only tired, but angry. That's because he can't get a high-level home assistance package for aged care.

RON TYAS: And they said, "Well, we've got a waiting list of about 40 probably in the area and only one package has come up in this year."

PETER MCCUTCHEON: So that's a 40-year wait?

RON TYAS: Well, I wrote a letter to some politicians and I said, you now, "I don't think she's gonna be around for another 40 years, so I can forget it."

PETER MCCUTCHEON: Lobby groups argue this is an example of an aged care system under stress and under-resourced. And with Australian Government spending on aged care projected to more than double in relative terms over the next 40 years, the situation is only going to get worse.

MICHAEL O'NEILL, NATIONAL SENIORS: Oh, look, I think there's no doubt the current aged care system is broken. It reflects a decade of inaction.

LEE THOMAS, AUSTRALIAN NURSING FEDERATION: The Federal Government say they pour billions of dollars into aged care each year, providers say it's not enough.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: The Productivity Commission is presently holding a public inquiry into aged care, but critics say real reform is long overdue.

MICHAEL O'NEILL: What they've seen, for example, since 2004 is five separate inquiries by government, but no action coming out of it. All of them put on the bookshelf at the end of the day to gather dust.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: Michael O'Neill is the chief executive of the consumer group National Seniors, which commissioned consultancy firm Access Economics to crunch the numbers on aged care. And the results make sobering reading.

Nursing home staff numbers are projected to increase by just over 14 per cent in the next decade, but demand is expected to increase by nearly 60 per cent. The ratio of residents to staff is increasing, leading to a marked deterioration in quality of care.

National Seniors says a spate of reports of authorities taking action against aged care homes points to a wider problem.

MICHAEL O'NEILL: If you look at some of the detail of these cases, a lot of them are around the adequacy of the care being delivered, and breaking that down further, it comes very much back to resourcing levels, to staffing levels and then within staffing levels the number of registered nurses, the qualifications of the staff there.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: And this touches on a major issue highlighted by Access Economics: the pressing need for improved wages and conditions to attract skilled staff to aged care.

LEE THOMAS: It's common sense that when you've got $300-a-week wages gap between aged care nurses and nurses working in other sectors that people are gonna have to make decisions about their family budgets. Many of them don't wanna do that, but they have to.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: The pressure on nursing homes can be reduced by encouraging and assisting families to look after elderly people in the home.

BILL LEEKE, CARER: Well the lady from the RSL comes five days a week. I think it's 11 and half hours or something.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: In Brisbane's south, an RSL aged care worker comes to help 92-year-old Bill Leeke look after his wife Gladys as part of an Extended Aged Care at Home, or EACH, package.

BILL LEEKE: They look after Gladys of course with her toiletry and they do the ironing sometimes, and it's a great help.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: But on Brisbane's northern fringe, Ron and Maree Tyass can't get the same deal The EACH packages allocated to this area have all been taken up. Although Ron Tyas can get a lower care package with fewer support hours, he's nonetheless frustrated.

RON TYAS: It annoys me so much, Peter, when they provide this entitlement, set up this feeling, "Oh good, I can access this." You go to access it, "Oh, sorry, it aint there after all."

ROSS SMITH, RSL CARE: We are getting hotspots across Australia. Some areas report they're fully occupied all the way through.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: The Department of Health and Ageing says 35 new EACH packages will soon be made available in the Caboolture region, but National Seniors says the system clearly has inefficiencies.

In the longer term, reform must involve not only better ways of delivering services, but also new ways of funding them.

And the Access Economics report raises several options, including introducing a long-term insurance system and tax incentives to put money aside for later life.

MICHAEL O'NEILL: A model that might be available to people with - on a lower income, able to encourage them to put money aside, dedicated for their aged care longer term. Some reflections in other parts of the world, where it's worked well, again for a discreet part of the population.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: So would it be like superannuation?

MICHAEL O'NEILL: A variation on superannuation. In fact there has been some talk that another model is take a little bit of supera - dedicate a little bit of people's superannuation to provide for their aged care as well.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: Access Economics concludes that without reform, the Australian Government will be faced with cost blowouts and deteriorating quality of care. So there's an urgent need, not only to find innovative ways of funding aged care, but also to improve efficiency in service delivery.

RON TYAS: It's just not easy. You've gotta dig, dig, dig for the support that you can get.

ROSS SMITH: The Prime Minister in the election lead-up indicated that aged care was a second-term issue for the Labor Government, so hopefully that's a statement we'll be reminding the Prime Minister of constantly as we go forward.

KERRY O'BRIEN: That report from Peter McCutcheon.