A proposal to close ten state-run residential care centres has been put on hold after news that a number of private sector homes are to shut.
Stormont health minister Simon Hamilton said it was right to “pause and reflect” on the future of statutory facilities following the move by Four Seasons to close seven of its 69 homes in the province.
A total of 254 residents and 393 staff face an uncertain future after the UK’s largest private care home company said the facilities were no longer viable.
A Hillsborough woman whose mum was cared for in the Oakridge home said its loss was a “nightmare” for Alzheimer’s sufferers and their families as specialist care can difficult to find.
Debbie Abbott’s mother Hilary Mitchell spent more than two years at the Ballynahinch facility she described as “amazing”.
She said: “Mum was in Oakridge after dad died and it is an amazing home with such caring staff. This is a complete nightmare for the families as there is a drought on EMI (elderly mentally infirm) and EMI nursing homes in Northern Ireland.
“I trusted Four Seasons as the staff all got full training on how to nurse and care for dementia patients. This is a very sad day for Alzheimer’s sufferers and their families.”
Mrs Abbott said it can be difficult to find suitable provision unless you have the money required for high end private care - that might not necessarily have the expertise to deal with Alzheimer’s sufferers.
“All the team at Oakridge were a great comfort and help to me dealing with the reality of what had happened.”
The health minister said “priority” would be given to the process of transitioning residents to other care settings. Four Seasons said it hoped many nurses and other care staff could be re-employed in its 62 remaining homes in the region.
Northern Ireland’s five health trusts had been asked by the Health and Social Care Board to assess statutory provision in their area and make proposals around potential closures to Mr Hamilton.
The minister said no proposals had yet reached his desk for final decision. But he added: “I have become increasingly concerned about a range of pressures facing the independent sector and particular problems facing one of the largest independent providers of residential care in Northern Ireland.
“I have been keeping developments under constant review and as a consequence of these growing concerns and confirmation today that Four Seasons Health Care will close seven homes across Northern Ireland, I am asking the Health and Social Care Board to halt and review the proposed closures of Statutory Residential Care Homes.
“Given that many of the proposals are predicated on spare local capacity in the independent sector, it is only right and proper to pause, reflect and give careful consideration to issues arising in the independent sector.”
He added: “The continued wellbeing of residents will be the priority in dealing with any future transition to alternative care arrangements. The intention is to ensure that any relocation will be managed with minimal disruption to them, that they are able to remain as close to the original location as possible and that there will be no additional financial implications created by the move.”
The announcement was made 24 hours after Four Seasons reported a pre-tax loss of £25.4 million for the third quarter of the year. It also came a month after the company announced the closure of its Drumragh care home in Omagh.
A spokesman for Four Seasons Health Care said the closure decisions were “difficult but unavoidable”. He cited a number of factors, including a lack of permanent nursing staff.
“The principal reason behind this decision is that each of these homes is operating at a loss and they are no longer viable,” he said.
“The fee income that the homes receive is below the cost of the care they are providing and we have effectively been paying a subsidy for them to continue to provide care. We regret that we cannot continue to sustain this position.
“Additionally, the national shortage of nurses means it has been difficult to recruit and retain permanent staff of the right calibre. This leaves the homes reliant on temporary agency nurses in order to maintain staffing levels, that carries a high cost and presents challenges.
“The wellbeing of the residents is our priority and the homes will continue to provide care while we allow plenty of time for them and their families to be supported to find suitable alternative placements. We will do everything we can to ensure there is no disruption to their care during this time.”