Equitable Aged Care

Mercy Health

Business in Focus featured Mercy Health last year, highlighting the organisation’s diverse mission and widespread services. Now, Mercy Health comes to our attention once again, this time for its leadership in the aged care industry.

Mercy Health has 12 residential aged care facilities offering low care, high care, dementia specific care and independent living units. “Each facility is quite unique, offering a different range of services based on the needs of that community,” Sheryl Nicholson, Service Manager at Mercy Place Warrnambool, reports. “They have all evolved in their own way, based on the needs of that particular community.” With over 1,100 beds in total, the organisation is committed to “providing care to a wide range of residents with varying care needs”.

The Mercy Health aged care mission goes beyond providing quality care to older people; the organisation is also an active advocate for Australia’s ageing population. “Mercy Health is very big on ensuring that its opinions are heard to represent the rights of older people,” Ms Nicholson says. “So we will lobby, either through peak bodies or through state or federal governments, to present our opinion on the direction that the government is taking or to try and influence the direction in some way.”

For instance, Mercy Health compiled an extremely detailed response for submission to the Productivity Commission when the first review on aged care was underway. “That is just one example of the types of avenues that Mercy Health will take,” Ms Nicholson remarks. The organisation’s activism is in response to a wide range of issues, but the underlying goal remains the same – to stand up for people who may not be able to stand up for themselves. “Mercy Health is very big on equity of access and quality of care and privacy issues,” Ms Nicholson explains. “And that is why we have been advocating for these rights through the peak bodies.”

New Directions

2013 will see a number of new initiatives and developments to Mercy’s Health’s aged care division. For starters, the organisation’s aged care facilities will continue to undergo extensive renovations and upgrades. The team is also working on improving the level of integration between residential care and community care services. The team will be examining Mercy Health facilities that currently only provide residential aged care and looking at ways to provide a more “seamless service” by incorporating a degree of home care into the care package that those facilities already offer. The end result, Ms Nicholson says, will be a smoother transition into residential aged care from a patient’s previous level of care. The initiative will be accomplished either by establishing more community services through Mercy Health or by working collaboratively with other organisations in the region that already provide those community care services.

Mercy Health will also be focusing on growing the aged care sector’s skilled workforce. “Facilities, particularly those smaller standalone facilities, struggle with being able to attract and retain a skilled workforce,” Ms Nicholson points out. “It is very expensive to provide training for staff and [there are] limited resources.” Mercy Health is developing a regional aged care training unit to help remedy this problem. The Warrnambool based centre will also collaborate with other regional aged care facilities. “To date, we have been in contact with six facilities in the region who are all very supportive,” Ms Nicholson reports. As a result, the centre will be able to provide extensive, locally based training “for all of the facilities in the region”.

The training centre’s comprehensive agenda will include everything from a basic orientation through to competency assessments and ongoing training. Mercy Health believes that this educational support will help to fill in some pervasive gaps within the industry’s standard training levels. Most aged care workers begin their careers with only a level three certificate, Ms Nicholson explains. “They are very low skilled initially. They need that development and we think we will be able to help. We think this is going to be great.”

Mercy Health also has funding to launch a graduate nursing program. “Graduate nurse programs for registered nurses in aged care are limited,” Ms Nicholson explains. “Therefore we often get nurses that don’t particularly want aged care. They are looking for acute care. So this will be a specially designed program that will attract nurses into aged care.”

The Aged Care Reforms

“The details of the reforms and their impact are yet to be shown,” Ms Nicholson reports. However, “we do know that there are some key changes.” The new, lifetime cap on charges that facilities can charge residents for their care and the deregulation of bed licenses will certainly impact the industry, Ms Nicholson says. Another key change is the fact that there will no longer be a distinction between high and low care. One of the largest impacts of this decision will be on staffing, Ms Nicholson believes. “For example, there are a lot of aged care facilities that are currently only low care. Their staffing will be significantly different to a facility that provides high care or a facility that provides a mix. So each facility will have to really evaluate their staffing structures. And once again, the recruitment and retention [of staff] will be highly important.”

Staffing decisions will also be affected by government’s demand that aged care workers receive higher pay. “The federal government has determined that aged care workers should get an increase in their salaries, which will amount to $1.2 billion across the aged care workforce,” Ms Nicholson reports. “However, they have not allocated money to support that. Therein lies the challenge. Mercy Health supports any increase to the wages of our aged care staff, but we are equally committed to ensuring this does not impact on the increasing care needs of residents. This is a complex challenge, but one we need to keep advocating for in the interests of both our staff and those who entrust us with their care.”

Another key change is the new, three tiered approach to aged care charges based on the quality of accommodations. “So a resident in a two bed room and a shared ensuite would obviously pay less than someone who has a single room with a balcony,” Ms Nicholson explains. “Mercy Health is not particularly supportive of that. [It goes] back to our philosophy of equity of access and quality of care. We would not like the fact that it is creating a gap between people with lower income and higher [income].”

Mercy Health has already begun to prepare for the changes that the Aged Care Reforms will bring to the industry. The team recently revaluated its Philosophy of Aged Care and its Code of Conduct to ensure that the organisation stays in line with the changing aged care landscape. The effort will help “consolidate and identify clearly what Mercy Health’s philosophy is and [how] to follow that path,” Ms Nicholson reports. The organisation has just released the new philosophy and code, and each Mercy Health staff member has resigned these documents to confirm their compliance with Mercy Health’s mission.

Another response to the Aged Care Reforms has been to develop a diversity and equity committee so that Mercy Health “continues to grow as a place of equity and justice for all,” Ms Nicholson reports. It is important to reaffirm this stance, she says, “because with the reforms there can be threats that impact on that.”

Funding is arguably the most challenging issue that Mercy Health – and the entire aged care industry – faces in the near future. Mercy Health’s size and scope provides a substantial advantage, however. “Mercy Health is fortunate in that it has the advantage of the economies of scale,” Ms Nicholson points out. Indeed, the team hopes to extend the organisation’s reach even further in the coming years. “We will continue to look at ways to expand and continue to grow,” she says.

Most importantly, as the organisation expands, the team is committed to staying on track with its commitment to providing quality care to all – regardless of background or economic status. “We will continue to press to be not only the employer of choice,” Ms Nicholson summarises, “but also the provider of choice.”

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July 20, 2018, 12:57 PM AEST

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