Brendan Howlin, the public expenditure and reform minister, has extended the remit of the office to allow residents or their families take up their issues with Peter Tyndall.
It ends the grey area which meant more than 22,000 people living in long-term care could not make complaints to the office and is an issue that Mr Tyndall has been raising since late 2013.
Since August 24 he has had his powers extended so he can examine independently complaints about private nursing homes in receipt of public funding.
The State provides funding to 22,360 nursing home residents and 5,000 in public institutions. Up to now, the Ombudsman had only been able to examine cases involving care homes run by the HSE. Mr Tyndall now has powers to investigate complaints against privately run homes where the care of residents is subsidised by the State through the nursing home support scheme (also known as ‘Fair Deal’).
Under the Ombudsman’s increased powers, even if only one resident in a home is availing of the scheme, he will have the power to examine complaints from other residents.
Only complaints about actions that occur on or after August 24 can be examined by the Ombudsman.
Mr Tyndall said: “The extension of my remit will ensure that some of the most vulnerable people in our communities can have their complaints examined independently”.
Before bringing a complaint to the Ombudsman, the person affected must have tried to resolve their complaint with the nursing home in the first case.
The move was welcomed by Fine Gael TD Fergus O’Dowd, who last year highlighted how hundreds of complaints about nursing homes were not being independently investigated.
The Health Information and Quality Authority, while having the power to inspect private nursing homes, is not able to investigate individual complaints.
“I very much welcome increased analysis of complaints in relation to private nursing homes. This will mean they can be independently investigated,” said Mr O’Dowd.
“It brings transparency and accountability to the process,” he said.
Mr O’Dowd said he had been impressed by the proactive attention the Ombudsman had taken and his willingness to take on the extra responsibility. This, he said, would obviously require an increase in skilled staff and other resources for the Ombudsman’s office.
However, Mr O’Dowd said that further reform of the law wa required to ensure that professional medical bodies fully addressed complaints made against their members.
In order to assist private nursing homes deal with complaints, the Ombudsman has hosted information seminars across the country for private nursing home owners.
The Ombudsman has also designed a “model complaints system” for nursing homes, which includes a sample complaint form. It outlines to nursing homes the importance of making a meaningful apology when things go wrong.
Nursing Homes Ireland said the extension of the Ombudsman’s remit will serve to strengthen the statutory regulation already in place and that it had worked with the office of the Ombudsman to explain to its members how to adapt to the extension of Mr Tyndall’s remit.
Nursing Homes Ireland chief executive Tadhg Daly said: “It is important that the public are aware that there is a robust system in place to respond to complaints received and the handling of complaints in the nursing home sector — this requirement is enshrined in legislation.”