A Government backbencher has accused “very wealthy” nursing home directors of complaining that the taxpayer was not doing enough for them.
Fine Gael TD Fergus O’Dowd also claimed as “patently and obviously untrue” allegations by Nursing Homes Ireland (NHI) chief executive Tadhg Daly that homes were left isolated by the Department of Health and HSE at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr O’Dowd said NHI had “very wealthy” directors and they had a lot of money to pay for testing, employ extra staff and buy infection control or personal protective equipment (PPE).
He claimed some private homes were not compliant with risk assessment and infection control regulations but their owners were complaining that “the taxpayer isn’t doing enough for them”.
Mr Daly insisted however at the Oireachtas Covid-19 committee that the sector had been left isolated and the “dismay will live with us forever”.
The committee is examining the State’s response to the pandemic, with a majority of deaths in nursing home settings.
The committee also heard director of Sage Advocacy Mervyn Taylor say private nursing homes were “literally outsourced and forgotten about” by the State and they must be integrated into the wider health and social care framework.
The agency campaigns for the rights of older people and Mr Taylor said there had to be legislation to “legitimise the role of independent advocates”. He recalled “private nursing homes throwing our staff out and not allowing them to contact residents. That is a rare occasion, but it has happened.”
Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness describe as a “ huge scandal”what had happened in nursing homes and he suggested a general inquiry was needed. But Mr Daly said the committee and the expert panel should complete their work, which would inform what should happen next.
But Mr Taylor said now “the issue is implementing the policies that have been talked about for the last 30 years”.
The exchanges came as correspondence between NHI and the Department of Health revealed that nursing homes were forced to use painters’ overalls and supplies from a local school and vet as PPE and endured delays of weeks in trying to get residents and staff tested for Covid-19.
The hundreds of pages of letters show repeated attempts by the sector to get clarity on testing, visiting restrictions and access to PPE since the start of the pandemic, with Mr Daly warning that the situation could get “out of control”.
Mr O’Dowd said correspondence in March showed the NHI thanking the department for its ongoing collaboration.
The Louth TD said a number of NHI’s were very wealthy and the latest accounts year for eight directors showed profits of €23.3 million, so they had money to pay for testing, staff recruitment and accommodation and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Mr O’Dowd said that when NHI sought financial supports, a €72 million funding scheme was established a few days later.
Mr Daly insisted it was not a question of finances but that PPE could not be sourced and testing was being coordinated at a national level by the State.
When he said just €8.7 million had been drawn down from the fund Mr O’Dowd said that was Government money being paid to the sector.
In an angry outburst the Louth TD also hit out at the compliance rates with risk assessment and infection control had gone from 27 per cent in 2017 to 23 per cent.
But Mr Daly pointed out that that included public as well as private and voluntary homes. And he insisted the sector “is arguably the most highly regulated sector” of any and the sector took its responsibilities very seriously.
Solidarity TD Mick Barry said there was “a touch of hypocrisy” in Mr O’Dowd’s outrage because nursing homes were overwhelmingly private because of a policy of privatisation and providing massive tax breaks.
Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall said “what has absolutely been exposed in the light touch regulation of the sector”.
Mr Daly rejected claims by Labour TD Duncan Smith who said it was “pretty clear that you have been shifting responding to the HSE and Department of Health”.
The NHI chief executive insisted he was highlighting the facts which showed gaps in supports. Issues could be improved but nothing stood out in terms of NHI doing thing differently.
When she asked about the ratio of nurses and care assistants to residents in nursing homes. Mr Daly said the regulator did not permit nursing homes to set ratios.
But Hiqa chief inspector Mary Dunnion later told the committee that this was “totally untrue”.