New legislation to help erase Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) debts for doctors and nurses who take up regional and remote work has been introduced, but the aged care sector will miss out on any benefits.
Graduates who move to regional and remote areas for work will have their HELP debt fully paid off in exchange for their work. The legislation, if passed, will mean a GP in a very remote town, as classified by the Modified Monash Model, would have their debt wiped after working there for the equivalent of half their course length.
The Federal Government believes that about 850 workers will use the program annually.
However, the limited requirements mean rural doctors, General Practitioners (GP) and healthcare nurses will be the only ones to benefit.
Nurses working in residential aged care facilities will not be eligible despite the passing of legislation that requires the 24/7 presence of a Registered Nurse in aged care.
Maree Bernoth, Associate Professor at the Charles Sturt University School of Nursing, Paramedicine and Healthcare Sciences, said it is a fabulous incentive for some but it’s not enough.
“I think it’s going to have a very limited impact and it should be extended to any Registered Nurse who’s moving to a rural or remote area, working in either acute or aged care,” said Ms Bernoth.
“It would be just one incentive to help attract nurses out here; we need a suite of initiatives to attract nurses and health professionals, not just this one.
“It may attract younger doctors to remote areas but I don’t see why only nurse practitioners have been included if they want to make a difference.”
Ms Bernoth said nurse practitioners hold clinical experience in a specific area and it may be difficult to lure them away from an existing contract, even with the promise of wiping off debt.
Mark Butler, the Minister for Health and Aged Care, did not address aged care workforce needs in the Government’s announcement.
“We are making sure all Australians have access to quality healthcare, no matter where they live,” said Minister Butler.
“We recognise the challenge of recruiting and retaining primary healthcare workers in rural and remote communities.
“These measures will make country practice a more attractive long-term career option for doctors and nurse practitioners.”
Ms Bernoth said she wants to see the State and Federal Governments working together to provide incentives supporting Registered Nurses and aged care workers across the board.
“We have trouble getting our students to smaller facilities or clinical facilities for work experience because there’s no accommodation,” said Ms Bernoth.
“If we want to attract Registered Nurses to aged care, there needs to be accommodation for them.
“There needs to be provisions for ongoing education and support, career pathways and holidays and breaks so workers can travel back to the cities on a regular basis for education or recreation.”
Ms Bernoth said the 15% pay rise for some aged care workers is also not enough, highlighting that there are factories in regional New South Wales paying $35 an hour, almost $10 more than some aged care award rates.
“With the increasing prices of food, power, and petrol, people just won’t be able to afford to work in aged care and our older people will suffer,” added Ms Bernoth.
Concerns over accommodation come in the wake of the Federal Government scrapping a major regional development fund that was going to allow Western Australian aged care provider, Bethanie, to build 70 onsite units at its Bunbury facility.
Without the appropriate Government support, Ms Bernoth said she’s worried that smaller facilities will be forced to close throughout regional and rural Australia.