Opposition wants State records on illegal nursing home charges published

Sinn Féin and Labour want facts established around State’s legal strategy since 2011 to limit refunds of nursing home fees charged to public patients over 30-year period

Opposition parties want records released about the State's strategy for handling legal claims around refunds for illegal nursing home charges over a 30-year period. Photograph: iStock

Opposition parties have called on the Government to publish all records about the handling of legal claims around refunds over the State’s failure to provide nursing home care to older people.

Sinn Féin’s health spokesman David Cullinane said the Government must publish records relating to an alleged “containment strategy” to manage legal claims from people seeking refunds for private nursing home care they paid for due to a lack of public beds they were entitled to.

Labour health spokesman Duncan Smith has called on the confidential government records to be made available “without delay for proper scrutiny at the Public Accounts Committee”.

They were responding to an Irish Mail on Sunday news report based on records that purported to guide successive governments on a strategy first prepared by the Department of Health in 2011 to limit State payouts for public nursing home care that older people were entitled to.

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The internal records published in the newspaper report came from a protected disclosure by Department of Health whistleblower Shane Corr, who first revealed information about contentious internal practices around the handling of litigation against the State almost two years ago.

In one record dating from 2011 – details of which were published in the newspaper – State officials are urged to handle the claims “with extreme care, discretion and confidentiality” in case the strategy and settlements gain a “high public profile” and “spark a large number of claims”.

Estimates within the files reportedly put the potential claims at €12 billion relating to patients with medical cards who were improperly charged in public nursing homes over a 30-year period and patients who had to pay for private nursing home care because no public beds were available.

Mr Cullinane said he had asked the Oireachtas Health Committee to write to the department seeking copies of all memos and documents referenced in the newspaper’s report on “an alleged secret plan to block refunds of illegal nursing home payments to citizens”.

“All of the documents that are referenced in this report need to be immediately published and any other relevant documents. There needs to be full transparency. That’s the only way in which we can establish the facts,” he told The Irish Times. “There needs to be a very transparent process here, no foot-dragging. This shouldn’t be one of those issues where we have to drag information out of the Government.”

Mr Smith expressed concern at the allegations reported on Sunday. “The idea that a long line of health ministers signed off on a secret plan to delay and/or deny refunds of illegal nursing home charges is deeply concerning. We need complete and total transparency here.”

Up to 2005, health boards were required to provide long-stay care to medical card holders free of charge.

In 2010, the then Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly criticised the Government and health chiefs in a damning report for having an unacceptable disregard for the law around the rights of older people to State-funded care and a failure over 40 years to amend the law to protect their rights. She criticised the Department of Health and Health Service Executive for fighting protracted lawsuits taken by older people who believed they were wrongly charged for nursing home care.

Her 2010 report accused the State of “buying off” individual patients by way of a settlement of their legal claims, ensuring that no individual case would go to hearing before the courts and thereby avoiding a judgment in the case “which would have wider implications”.

Ms O’Reilly, who at the time had received more than 1,200 complaints from older people on the charges, later accused the department of having a “culture of prevarication” and said it was engaging in a careful strategy of risk management in relation to the legal cases.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said that it does not comment on matters pertaining to litigation.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times