Care homes across the country could face sanctions after an investigation into the industry found that the families of residents are being charged for extended periods after their elderly relatives have died.
The Competition and Markets Authority, the state watchdog, has received complaints about relatives paying for rooms after the death of a resident as part of its inquiry into the care home sector.
The watchdog has also received complaints about a lack of transparency around fees, difficulties moving homes after a fee increase, and self-funders paying more than state-funded residents for the same services. In response care homes have defended their contracts and claimed that local authorities are not paying enough towards the cost of care.
Many care homes charge the relatives of a resident for a week after they have died so there is time to clear their belongings. However, the CMA has been told in submissions to its inquiry that families are being charged fees for “extended periods” after a relative has died and their room has been cleared. Some families are also being forced to cover a shortfall in state funding for the room, which stops as soon as the resident dies.
Care homes charge hundreds of pounds a week for a room, meaning families are being left with bills worth thousands of pounds after their relative has died.
The CMA launched its investigation into care homes before Christmas. It is conducting a study into how the market works but also whether there are grounds for consumer enforcement action. It has the power to make recommendations to the government and the industry about changes that need to be made but it can also threaten businesses with legal action if they are deemed to have breached consumer laws or engaged in unfair commercial practices.
The organisation’s investigation has received dozens of submissions from the families of care home residents, care home operators, local authorities and charities.
One submission from the wife of a care home resident says: “The emotion in moving a close relative from home to a care home is complex – guilt, feelings of failure, tragedy at the loss of the person you once knew and their transition into a person who can no longer understand anything or help themselves.
“People are very much at the mercy of availability, location and affordability. The demands on relatives are substantial – they have not got rid of their responsibilities, but developed other, different ones.
“I firmly believe that this dishonesty in charging must be dealt with. There should be a lifetime cap on fees for the individual. Their income tax could be reduced during the years a person was in care.
“Unlike other risks in life, care needs are not pooled. Illnesses, like cancer, are looked after by the health service, free. If you are unfortunate enough to get dementia then you face the need to pay.
“The current model of care in the UK is under-funded, unclear and unfair. It needs a proper independent investigation.”
Another from Charles Taylor, who runs two care homes in Oxfordshire, tries to address the issue of charging for rooms after the resident has died.
He said: “We charge families for a one-week period post the death of a resident. Family members are suffering from a bereavement at this time and often take this week to remove personal items from an individuals’ room, and to say goodbye to the person in the place of their passing. The alternative is for the care home to fill the bed the day following the death and to pack up the individuals’ belongings to be collected, which does not allow the family the time to grieve properly.”
Age UK, the charity, said it seemed “wholly unfair” to charge for care home rooms when an older person had died and their room became vacant.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: “When an older person dies, and their room becomes vacant and therefore available for someone else to occupy, it seems wholly unfair to expect their family to have to continue to pay fees. This is a really difficult and distressing time for relatives and the last thing they need is to be worried about money in this way.”
Care England, the trade body for care homes, said that arrangements for paying for rooms after the death of a resident were stipulated in the contracts.
Martin Green, the chief executive of Care England, said: “This [paying after a bereavement] will of course depend on the contract, and like many other agreements, the payments do not stop the moment you die, rather there are contractual arrangements which the person’s estate is responsible for.”
The CMA is scheduled to deliver its interim report on care homes by 1 June. In a statement the organisation called for more residents and their relatives to come forward. It said: “We are very keen to hear from care home residents and their relatives who have experienced issues such as unexplained or ‘hidden’ charges, unexpected fee increases or occasions when they feel that complaints have not been handled fairly.
“As part of our review we are looking at whether care homes are complying with consumer law so we’re encouraging people to come forward with any evidence of unfair terms or practices. We will be reporting our initial findings by the start of June.”
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