Harney faces questions about home care regulation

Health Minister Mary Harney was facing calls today to explain the lack of regulation of companies caring for older people in their home and the shocking treatment some of their staff engage in.

A damning four-month 'Prime Time' investigation uncovered appalling abuse of the sick and infirm by a number of private companies, including apparent force feeding, theft and an absence of vetting of workers.

Healthcare organisations and rights campaigners have demanded statutory regulation and standards to protect thousands of vulnerable older people.

Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghin O Caolain said the Minister has questions to answer.

"These appalling revelations demand immediate answers and immediate action from the Minister for Health and Children," he said.

"I will be raising this scandal in the Dáil and be calling for a special debate and real assurance to older people that they will not be prey to those whose only motive is greed and profit, a situation brought about by the Government's policy of privatising health and social services."

The Health Service Executive is to review the care provided to 65,000 older people in their own homes after the scandal was exposed.

The Home Care Association, which represents 50 private home care providers, said it agrees statutory regulation of the sector is badly needed.

The shocking extent of abuse was uncovered by RTÉ's 'Prime Time' after an undercover investigation lasting four months. It exposed a lack of proper training, an older person given medicine by an unqualified carer, one person being force fed and another left to lie in a soiled bed.

The HSE said 52 people rang a helpline set up to answer concerns over home care services.

Nine people made complaints as a result of the phone calls, the organisation said.

“These are now being dealt with by the HSE to ensure that any issues arising are resolved as quickly as possible and that alternative arrangements are put in place for these clients, if necessary,” the HSE said.

Jan O'Sullivan, Labour's health spokeswoman, said: "I was horrified with what I saw, and my heart goes out to those people who we witnessed suffering degradation, humiliation and abuse at the hands of these so-called care providers."

She said problems in home care were a direct result of policies introduced by Mary Harney.

"In particular, her twin-track of approach of privatisation of services on the one hand and the moratorium on recruitment in the HSE on the other has created a situation where the HSE is simply not in a position to meet the demands that are being placed on them," she said.

"And where the slack has to be taken up by a sector that is completely unregulated; where workers are not vetted; and where there are no codes of conduct.

"It is clear that we need statutory regulation of this sector as a matter of urgency."

An HSE report last summer showed 1,870 allegations of abuse made by elderly people in 2009 - an increase of 30 cases on the previous year.

Age Action disputes those figures and warned that the real figure was anywhere between 14,000 and 24,000 instances of abuse against older people at some stage in their later years.

The advocacy organisation today called on the Government to act, as a matter of urgency, to regulate the home care sector.

“In the wake of last night’s revelations on Prime Time we need to know why the Government is continuing to ignore its responsibilities when it comes to protecting vulnerable, older people, by failing to regulate the home help and home care sector,” Age Action spokesman Eamon Timmins said.

“The job of Government is to protect its vulnerable citizens and older people depending on strangers coming into their homes to provide them with essential care are among the most exposed at the moment.”

The older people’s charity is calling on the Government to introduce legislation so that all agencies that provide home care be regulated.

“All home helps – regardless of whether they are employed directly by the HSE, whether they work for a firm contracted by the HSE or they employed by a private home help firm – must have staff who are Garda vetted, properly trained, supervised and independently inspected,” Mr Timmins said.

“Unless the Government moves to regulate the sector there is no reason to believe that anything will change, or that the suffering being experienced by older people in their own homes will end."

Eddie O'Toole, operations director of leading care company Bluebird Care, said the welfare of thousands of older people was being compromised by the continued lack of regulation.

"Ireland is at a crossroads in the way we, as a society, care for our older people," Mr O'Toole said.

Bluebird Care has 14 offices across Ireland providing care to hundreds of people in their homes.

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