Care homes announcement leaves some still harbouring fears for future

“Unanswered questions” still hover over the future of Northern Ireland’s public care homes following a call for fresh reviews of them.

The Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) set out plans for fresh assessments of services and needs across the Province after last year’s furore surrounding plans by many trusts to shut their facilities.

Health trusts are being asked to review their stances on new admissions, and the health minister pledged all residents will be able to stay put for as long as they wish – adding he wants to explore the idea of turning such homes into “broader hubs for older people’s services” too.

HSCB said proposals for closure could only be made if there were no permanent residents, and the relevant trust had ruled out alternative uses for the home.

But UUP health spokesman Roy Beggs said some homes had not let in new residents for years, and now there are more review processes to go through, adding: “The minister needs to take some control of the situation and he needs to instruct the board and trusts to lift their unfair and unjustified ban on permanent admissions immediately.”

Claire Keatinge, Commissioner for Older People, said there were “unanswered questions” on proper investment for homes and dwindling numbers of residents.

She added: “Whilst current residents can take some comfort in the fact that they will be able to remain in their home if they so wish, there is nothing to give future older people confidence that a choice of statutory residential accommodation will continue to be available to them.”

SDLP health spokesperson Fearghal McKinney said asking health trusts to review their admissions policy for older people going into care homes was a “farce”.

The South Belfast MLA said: “People will be very concerned and confused at this news because it is devolving authority to the Trusts who will use vague criteria to come to the same decision that left people so aghast last year.”

The Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) is calling on reviews to be done across the board using fresh, centralised criteria it has laid down.

It follows a wave of public dismay last year when it was revealed that regional care trusts were intending to shut a raft of their care homes, forcing health minister Edwin Poots to step in, halt the closures, and ask HSCB to look into the matter.

And yesterday’s announcement was accompanied by a firm pledge from Mr Poots, who re-iterated his stance that no-one will be turfed out of their homes.

The new criteria was drawn up after a consultation exercise, which involved finding out the views of residents.

Fionnuala McAndrew, acting chief executive with HSCB, said: “I recognise that this process has caused anxiety for residents, their families and carers, but I hope that the minister’s statements and our commitment to them will provide the reassurance needed to ensure that any future changes can be managed in a way that does not cause any further concerns.”

However, the announcement has done little to allay worries for some that many of the homes will still ultimately dwindle and disappear.

Trade union Unison released a statement which said that as a result of the latest announcement: “The agony and uncertainty continues.”

While regional trusts are being asked to review their positions on permanent admissions, bodies called local commissioning groups will be involved in assessing local needs.

But Unison regional organiser Joe McCusker said he was unclear about the make-up of these local commissioning groups , and when it comes to the involvement of the trusts, he said: “Today, we’re in a position where HSCB is passing it to the very people who said they were going to close it last year.”

He added in much of the Province there has been an “admissions ban” in place for over a year for the homes.

“While trusts have an admission ban in place, as people pass on you may find yourself living in one of the residential care homes where there’s maybe one or two residents,” he said.

“That may be used as a justification to close it because it’s not financially sustainable.”

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