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Ombudsman criticises council for “systemic fault” in care home charging policy

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has criticised a council for a “systemic fault” in its charging policy for care homes that could have affected a number of people in its area.

The Ombudsman said the case involving Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council was a reminder to councils to offer affordable care home placements to families when arranging relatives’ care.

The LGO upheld a complaint against Dudley from a family who said they were given no alternative but to pay a ‘third party top-up fee’ to help pay for their mother’s care.

The mother, who had vascular dementia, moved into a care home in February 2015. It was arranged by Dudley and Walsall Mental Health Partnership Trust, on behalf of the council. The cost of the placement was £408.83 a week, including the top-up.

The family explained in March they could only afford to pay £50 a week. Dudley agreed to pay the remainder of the top-up, which was £61.

In November 2015 the family realised they could no longer afford the weekly fee and asked for the council’s help.

The mother’s needs were reassessed, but there was no record of any consideration of the affordability of the £50 weekly top-up fee.

Social services at Dudley told the family the council would not pay the rest of the top-up fee, but would support the family if they wanted to consider moving their mother.

The family complained to the council. Dudley did not uphold the complaint, saying if they could not afford the £50 top-up, then it would move the woman to a cheaper placement.

The family complained to the Ombudsman.

The LGO investigation found the trust, acting on behalf of the council, had not acted in line with statutory guidance when arranging the mother’s care.

It said there was no evidence any alternative placement was made available for which the mother would not need a top-up. The trust could provide no evidence of any approaches made to any other care homes.

The investigation also found fault with the trust as it could not provide evidence of any information it gave to the family about top-ups. Additionally it did not enter into a written top-up agreement with the family and failed to check on the continued affordability.

To remedy the injustice caused to the family, Dudley has agreed to apologise and refund the £4,628 top-up payments the family paid. It will also reassess the mother’s needs before making any changes to her care plan.

The council has also agreed to review all those in council-funded residential care managed within the trust’s mental health services and who pay top-ups to see if any refunds are due to them. It will also review its procedures.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: “Families can only make proper informed decisions about their relatives’ care if they are given the correct information. In this case, the family was only presented with one option – to pay a top-up fee – and no further details about their rights.

“We issued a focus report on top-up fees in 2015 because we saw systemic problems across the country and I’m disappointed we are still seeing councils getting these issues wrong. I would urge other councils to check their own policies and procedures to ensure people in their areas are not similarly affected.”