Consultation on closures of care homes will be just a box-ticking exercise, families fear
Questions have been raised over a new public consultation set to decide the future of NHS residential care homes across Northern Ireland after it was heavily criticised by a leading health union.
A two-stage process was unveiled by the Health and Social Health Care Board (HSCB) to develop criteria that will be used to determine whether state-run homes will close.
Despite assurances that residents' views will be "at the core" of the process, health chiefs confirmed a significant number of statutory residential homes will still face the axe.
Unison branded the document "deliberately confusing" and family members of residents who have fought to save homes from closure said they "remain worried" over the emotive issue.
The exact number of homes that could shut down will not be known until the criteria is set early next year.
That is expected to be finalised by March 2014 after the first stage of the consultation process led by the HSCB ends.
Health Minister Edwin Poots handed responsibility for the closures to HSCB following a public backlash in May.
Ahead of the launch of the fresh plans, Fionnuala McAndrew, director of Social Care and Children, admitted changes were needed in how the process was carried out after the public outcry.
She said any developments would be "approached sensitively" by the HSCB.
Following the consultation starting in October, an agreed criteria will be used by all five trusts to assess their care homes.
They will then inform the board of their future intentions who will examine proposals and consider any closures.
Major changes, including proposed closures, will require further consultation.
Ms McAndrew said residents and their families should not be anxious about the future as no decision have been made.
"We are not working to any stringent timescale," she said. "My most important message is that nothing will be happening without involving them." But she confirmed a "significant" number of statutory residential homes will close their doors. "It could be more than 50%, less than 50%."
The public row erupted after two Health and Social Care Trusts announced an intention to shut all of their residential homes, leaving hundreds of elderly people uncertain of where they would live.
Mr Poots was forced to step in and make a U-turn on the plans.
Last night he moved to give assurances that the views of residents and their families would be of extreme importance.
"I have been very clear that their needs, wishes and concerns should be at the core of this process going forward," he said.
He added that there would be "a genuine consultation" with older people.
Jim Luke (71) from north Belfast said he has "little faith" in the process and remained worried.
His 97-year-old mother has been living at Chestnut Grove residential care home in north Belfast for five years. She was among hundreds of elderly residents who received a letter from the HSCB informing her the future of her home remained uncertain.
"She has problems with her eyes so any kind of move would be a big wrench for her," he said.
"She knows every nook and cranny of Chestnut Grove. I just feel this is a box-ticking exercise.
"They can listen all they want and then just go ahead with closures – so in other words we will listen to you but not take notice, that is our fear."