Older people have been systematically denied their rights over 25 years because of a lack of State-funded nursing home beds, a damning watchdog report revealed tonight.
More than 1,200 vulnerable elder people complained to the Ombudsman’s office which accused the Government and health chiefs of having an unacceptable disregard for the law.
Emily O’Reilly lashed the Department of Health and Health Service Executive (HSE) for fighting long, drawn-out lawsuits against older people who believed they were wrongly charged for nursing home care.
The shocking findings prompted Age Action to accuse the Government of financial elder abuse.
Cases examined by the watchdog date back to 1985 with less well-off patients told they, or their families, had to pay for a room in a private nursing home because there were no public beds.
The most damning conclusions stated:
:: Out of more than 300 lawsuits claiming compensation from the State none have made it to hearing despite being on High Court lists for five years.
:: Health boards failed to fulfil obligations to older people under the 1970 Health Act with the full knowledge and agreement of the Department.
:: Very many older people and their families suffered significant adverse affect and financial hardship over several decades.
:: The Ombudsman’s inquiry was hit by unprecedented rancour and disagreement from Government.
:: Health chiefs claimed that under Irish law a sick, vulnerable, older person had no entitlement to free long-term care.
Age Action chief executive Robin Webster said: “The issue of older people who were forced to pay for private nursing home beds because they could not get a public bed they were entitled to, remains the elephant in the sitting room.
“In effect, it is the most pro-longed case of financial elder abuse by the State.”
No-one will be offered compensation as a result of the inquiry.
Health Minister Mary Harney said she has fundamental concerns about the inquiry and claimed that it did not follow fair procedures.
The minister also attacked the content, scope and language of the report.
“It is not credible to suggest that the Oireachtas, when it enacted the 1970 Act, intended and expected all services to be provided immediately once a clinical/social need for them had been established,” said Ms Harney.
The Ombudsman went on to accuse both the Department of Health and HSE of refusing to co-operate with the investigation.
Her report said about 12 lawsuits have been settled confidentially with the State agreeing to pay out but she warned these cases smacked of a “buying off” culture experienced in a separate dispute when old health boards were challenged for illegally charging medical card holders for long stay care.
She warned that litigation involving State bodies was unsettling and may be based more on protecting the interests of the body itself than on serving the wider public interest.
And the report also said it was unwarranted of Health Minister Mary Harney to suggest in 2005 that patients may be trying to exploit legal loopholes by trying to claim compensation for private bed bills.
The Government was urged to consider reforming health laws to prevent a repeat of the scandal.
The Ombudsman said she had reluctantly decided against calling for redress for 1,200 complainants warning it could lead to an influx of claims and a bill of several billion euro. But she urged the Department to consider devising a scheme to help families hit by severe financial hardship
Ms Harney highlighted the ’Fair Deal’ scheme adopted last year and claimed no country would provide health and social services without some form of prioritisation to reflect the reality of resources.
She also questioned the Ombudsman’s inquiry into the lawsuits, adding: “The Ombudsman’s remit does not cover the conduct of litigation by the State.”
Nursing Homes Ireland said ongoing lack of equality in the system must be addressed.
Tadhg Daly, chief executive, claimed: “It is an issue that is continuing even under the Nursing Home Support Scheme (Fair Deal) because private nursing homes are still required to provide care under this scheme at a rate far lower than public nursing homes,” he added.