Private care homes facing ‘crisis’ over staff shortages and agency costs in Northern Ireland
Private nursing homes across Northern Ireland are facing an unprecedented funding crisis, the manager of a Belfast care home has warned.
Helen Chambers of Victoria Care Home in south Belfast said 20 years of warnings have gone unheeded by the authorities, and the sector is now staring into the abyss.
"Private nursing homes are in crisis," she said.
"The problem is right here, right now, and the authorities have been aware this has been coming for some time and done nothing.
"We've had report after study after research and so far we've got nowhere and it's becoming more frustrating for us by the day.
"Beds are closing, nurses are leaving for agencies and private nursing homes are no longer able to afford the type of care our older people need and deserve."
Ms Chambers outlined the scale of the financial crisis.
"For a single Saturday cover shift from an agency nurse, it costs me £744. Per week, per patient, we receive £672. Someone needs to tell me how those figures add up, because I certainly can't make it work.
"I don't blame nurses for going to agencies. They pay better, much more than we can afford, but that shouldn't be the case and it leads to real problems in the continuity of care we feel is so important to our elderly people.
"Nursing homes are being forced to close their nursing units and become residential only. But the question is, if no one is going to be able to provide the specialised care people need in their older years, then where are they going to go?
"That's going to put even more pressure on hospitals. The backlog is already there and it's only going to get worse.
"But we have no one in Stormont to make decisions. I have no one to go to, to make sure these concerns are heard. Our elderly are being let down and the problem is about to explode. In the meantime we have our politicians doing nothing by squabbling while people are suffering.
"We need funding to keep the staff nurses we have and bring new staff nurses in. That's the only solution I can see.
"Not only are agency staff much too expensive for us, we are never sure of getting the same nurse each time. Caring for the elderly is critical and it needs to be done on a consistent basis, with the same nurses who know each person's needs."
Victoria currently has 28 residents, with 20 staff nurses employed to care for them.
"We take pride in the care we provide, but I can't ask my staff to work any longer during the week, they're already doing more than enough hours and that wouldn't be fair on either them or the residents," she said.
"Our residents get familiar with who is helping them. It comforts them. The nurses here know the medication needed and the routines. I'm not saying an agency nurse is a bad nurse, they're not, it's just that it's difficult for me as a manager to maintain that continuity of care that's so important. A new agency nurse comes in and needs trained. The following week we get a different nurse and have to start that process over again.
"I've been a manager for 32 years and I could see these problems coming.
"I'm amazed the authorities have been sitting back and allowing the situation to snowball from a warning into a crisis. Standards of care are slipping, through no fault of the nursing homes. The window for mistakes is wider every week and sadly it's the elderly people who are paying the heaviest price.
"It's now almost impossible for us to hire our own staff, as nurses gravitate towards agency work when they leave college. It's only natural, as they pay more and I don't blame them, but we need someone to step in and level the playing field so we can keep the quality of care our elderly people deserve.
"Our residents in Victoria consider this their home, but I've seen other elderly people moved from pillar to post as other nursing homes have closed.
"It's heartbreaking. And what's more heartbreaking is that the way things are, with no minister at Stormont, the problem is just being allowed to fester.
"I'd ask our politicians to come along to our home at Victoria, see the distress and the stress people are working under to provide the care needed for our elderly. We need the authorities to wake up and see the crisis in front of them.
The Commissioner for Older People Eddie Lynch echoed those concerns.
He said: "Having recently met with Ms Chambers I completely agree with her with regard to the current crisis in the private nursing sector and many of her concerns are highlighted in my Home Truths report on Dunmurry Manor Care Home.
"The reliance on and high cost of agency staff, as well as the difficulties recruiting nurses for homes, are particular areas of concern for me as they are systemic issues the private nursing home sector now faces.
"My team is analysing the response from the Department of Health to the recommendations in Home Truths and will further this debate in due course."
The Department of Health said it would be taking a closer look at the concerns raised and would be responding in detail in due course.
"The department is acutely aware of the growing pressures across adult social care. These are by no means unique to Northern Ireland," a statement said.
"We are committed to an ambitious reform agenda for social care to address these challenges in a sustainable fashion. The HSC in Northern Ireland continues to be committed to ensuring that the quality of care for all our residents in all our care homes remains of the highest standard."