Northern Ireland

Clarity urged over care home admissions after reprieve

Stormont Health Minister Edwin Poots has been urged to clarify if the admissions policy on NHS care homes will be changed.

It follows the announcement of a reprieve for 18 NHS care homes earmarked for closure.

Mr Poots said the homes will remain open while residents want to stay in them. A trade union representative said it felt "like an election stunt".

The closures were part of the 2013 Transforming Your Care health review.

However, last October the Health and Social Care Board said none of Northern Ireland's statutory care homes would close before the end of 2014.

During that public meeting, the board said the ban on admissions would also be reviewed.

In a letter to the Stormont health committee, seen by the BBC on Wednesday, Mr Poots said: "I am writing to the committee to advise that it is my intention to move quickly to reassure permanent residents within those homes.

"I am clear that existing residents will be allowed to remain in their home for as long as they wish and so long as their needs can continue to be met there."

Maeve McLaughlin, chair of the health committee, said on Thursday that the minister needed to be clear about future admissions.

The Sinn Féin MLA told BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster programme: "Where does it actually leave us if we don't review the admissions policy and allow trusts to admit people to these homes?

"The cynic in me says that if the admissions policy doesn't change, then what has changed in terms of the future of residential care?"

Stephanie Greenwood of Unison said if homes were not taking on new residents, their long-term future was in doubt.

Mr Poots visited several care homes in the Northern and Western Trust areas on Wednesday, including the Rosedale facility in Antrim where he met Ms Greenwood.

She told Good Morning Ulster: "I asked the minister if this wasn't an election tactic, why could he not lift the non-admission policy now?

"He said he had gone back to the board and asked them to do work in that area, and hopefully there would be a result around June.

"If this was not an election tactic, there is absolutely no reason why the non-admission policy should not be lifted now."

Ms Greenwood said that Mr Poots talked about introducing other services into the homes.

She said: "We don't want to be saving buildings - we want to be saving residential care as a service for the long term use of our elderly who are still to come."

The letter to the Stormont health committee continued: "I recognise there is significant spare capacity in care homes in general and I have tasked officials with examining whether we are making the best use of statutory residential homes in particular.

"This will include consideration both of an expanded role in providing respite care and, given the current pressures in our hospital system, potential step-down provision following discharge from hospital.

"Officials will also explore the potential for residential facilities to serve as broader hubs for older people's services."

The letter went on to say that there was an "onus" on the Health and Social Care Board to show older people new alternatives to statutory homes were a "better option for them".

Asked if he could guarantee that all 18 homes would remain open, Mr Poots told the BBC's Nolan Show: "I'll not be minister forever and I can't give guarantees forever.

"What we are saying is that the policy of closing homes is not a policy we are pursuing.

"The policy is about how best we can use these services to meet the needs of a growing elderly population.

"We want to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach and look at how residential care homes can be used in other ways so we spend the taxpayers' money wisely while meeting the needs of the elderly population."

Image caption Josie McCann and her mother, Letty, were delighted at the news

Last April, the BBC revealed that the Western Trust was proposing to close all its residential care homes.

It followed similar moves by the Northern and Southern health trusts, which announced plans to close their homes.

The news sparked outcry from residents and their families, prompting a consultation process that ended in March.

Subsequently, the health minister said the way the potential closure of such homes in Northern Ireland had been handled was "disastrous".

His announcement on Wednesday was greeted with relief by some care home residents and their families.

Josie McCann, whose 100-year-old mother is a resident at Thackeray Place, Limavady, said it was "fantastic news".

Margaret Gilbert, who was heavily involved in the battle to keep Westlands Home in Cookstown open, said it was "brilliant" news.

"I'm just so, so pleased for the residents," she said.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said Mr Poots was keen to hear the views and experiences of residents and their families.

Ulster Unionist Party health spokesperson Roy Beggs has said there is the real danger that the review of the non-admissions policy may be "solely for the optics and could result in no change".

"Either the homes are going to be allowed to admit new permanent residents providing quality, affordable and local care or they will not," he said.

"Without new residents then I am sorry but the minister's announcement has only delayed the closure of the homes, not stopped them."

SDLP health spokesperson Fearghal McKinney welcomed what he called a U-turn on the closure of care homes.

Mr McKinney said: "The only disappointment is that it took the minister and the department so long to take action.

"These residents should have been protected as a fundamental right. They should never have had to go through the trauma of facing what amounted to eviction from their home."

Alliance health spokesperson Kieran McCarthy also welcomed the move.

"This whole issue has been very poorly managed by the authorities. It has caused unnecessary distress and fear for residents and their families.

"The minister must provide clarity over the decision to keep these care homes open, a lot of people will be angry if this turns out to be an election stunt."

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