State accused of four decades of elderly care neglect

THOUSANDS of elderly people could be entitled to financial redress after a report by the Office of the Ombudsman concluded they have been deprived over four decades of their entitlement to nursing home care.

It claims the Health Service Executive and the Department of Health have shown “an unacceptable disregard for the law” by interpreting legislation over decades in a way to avoid having to fund the cost of residential care for elderly citizens.

Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly accused the health authorities of deliberately trying to prevent her from carrying out the inquiry.

In a stinging criticism of the HSE and its governing depart- ment, the report entitled Who Cares? – An Investigation into the Right to Nursing Home Care in Ireland said their approach had resulted in confusion, suffering and financial hardship for very many people.

She reluctantly took the view that the public interest in the present circumstances was best served by not making any specific recommendation with regard to financial compensation.

However, she suggests the Department of Health should devise some limited scheme to assist families which have suffered serious financial hardship through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme.

Ms O’Reilly concluded the Health Act 1970 entitles people to be provided with in-patient services, including nursing home care, although her interpretation is disputed by the Department of Health.

She said her office had received more than 1,200 complaints on the issue since 1985, while there are currently more than 300 related actions before the courts.

Although the department insists such individuals have no legal case, Ms O’Reilly pointed out that the State had already reached confidential settlements in over a dozen similar cases.

The report suggests the State has adopted a trend in settling such legal actions so the courts will not deliver a landmark ruling. The Ombudsman described a letter from Health Minister Mary Harney, written last September to express the Government’s support for the stance adopted by the Department of Health, as an “unprecedented intervention”.

She also criticised the Government over its continuing failure to introduce legislation.

The minister said she had fundamental concerns about the conduct of the investigation.

* Meanwhile, the Government has asked the Attorney General to examine a groundbreaking report by the country’s human rights watchdog which calls for a statutory inquiry into the country’s Magdalene Laundries.

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