Redress scandal | 

Ministers deny receiving memo on ‘secret plan’ to stall €12bn nursing homes refund

It comes after both Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin claimed they were unaware of any “legal strategy” to avoid paying a €12bn redress bill.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he was unaware of any plan to limit the State’s legal liability. Photo: Damian Storan

Senan Molony and Eilish O’

The Government has asked the Attorney General to look at claims that many people were illegally charged for nursing home care before the Fair Deal scheme was introduced.

It comes after both Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin claimed they were unaware of any “legal strategy” to avoid paying a €12bn redress bill.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said the “issue dates from the 1970s and concerned older people who were in nursing homes.

“Issues relating to the legal basis for charges paid by nursing home residents were highlighted in 2005 following a Supreme Court judgment,” the spokesman said.

“The Health Repayment Scheme was put in place by the Government of the day in 2006 to repay eligible long-stay residents in public facilities.

“Since 2009, the Nursing Homes Support Scheme has provided a statutory basis for individuals to make contributions towards their public or private nursing home costs.”

The Tánaiste has now joined the Taoiseach in claiming he was unaware of a state strategy to deny redress to people who were illegally charged for nursing home care.

Both former health minsters, Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin said they were unaware of any cynical approach to limit the State’s legal liability.

At issue is whether the State had the power to levy charges on individuals and their families for elderly care in institutions. Some internal memos suggested the legislative framework was lacking and therefore there was now power to extract contributions.

Mr Varadkar said yesterday the State had never conceded private nursing home charges were covered by medical cards. It would have taken a court judgment to establish that position, but cases were settled before any were listed for formal determination.

The Taoiseach told Newstalk’s Pat Kenny that he was aware of four people who received a memo on the issue – but he was not one of them.

Mr Martin said through a spokesman that he “would not have been aware of any legal strategy or memo on nursing home charges”.

The issue arose 20 years ago, and has since been supplanted by the Fair Deal Scheme.

According to leaked papers, if the Government had had to recompense everyone for all charges then the national cost could be €12bn.

Mr Varadkar, referring to the Mail on Sundayreport, said: “The way it was presented on Sunday, the real picture is more complex than that.

“I was never party to devising a legal strategy relating to nursing home charges.”

Mr Varadkar became health minister five years after Mary Harney introduced the Fair Deal scheme in 2009, which provided state funding for nursing home care in exchange for a portion of residents’ income and assets.

A Government spokesperson said the legal strategy pre-dated July 2011 and was pursued by successive governments and it has been misrepresented.

“The strategy was to defend the cases relating to private nursing homes on several grounds, in particular that medical card holders did not have an unqualified entitlement to free private nursing home care,” he said

“A limited number of individual cases were settled where there were complicating factors. No case ever proceeded to a hearing. In the case of public nursing homes, a scheme was put in place and €480m was paid to former residents or their families. Minister Donnelly has sought advice from the Attorney General and a detailed briefing from his department.”

Meanwhile, the Labour Party has joined Sinn Féin in calling for all documents on the issue to be disclosed to an Oireachtas committee.

Labour health spokesperson Duncan Smith said: “The idea that a long line of health ministers signed off on a secret plan to delay or deny refunds of illegal nursing home charges is deeply concerning.

“We need complete and total transparency here. All documents relating to these allegations should be made available without delay for proper scrutiny at the Public Accounts Committee.”

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane has written to the Oireachtas Health Committee requesting it seek copies of all paperwork.

He called on the Government to release all related documents to provide full transparency after one of the memos leaked to the Mail on Sunday said “confidentiality has been a central element of the legal strategy”.

Another memo, reflecting the “army deafness” claims, said: “The fear is that if details of the cases, the legal strategy and settlements were to gain a high public profile, it would spark a large number of claims. It is therefore important that this litigation is handled with extreme care.”

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