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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (file photo) PA
nursing home charges

Varadkar defends controversial 'legal strategy' for limiting nursing home payouts

Opposition parties have called on the Government to release documents relating to the strategy.

LAST UPDATE | 31 Jan 2023

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has defended the Government’s “legal strategy” for limiting payouts to nursing home residents for controversial charges and that the plan was “pursued by successive governments”

Varadkar has argued that coverage of the strategy has been misrepresented and related to residents in private nursing homes rather all public residents.

The State defended these cases by residents and their families based “on several grounds, in particular that medical card holders did not have an unqualified entitlement to free private nursing home care”.  

Speaking in the Dáil, Varadkar said that he was unaware if he had been asked to sign off on a continuation of the policy while he was Health Minister, but said that he would have.

“I don’t specifically know if I was asked to sign off on it being continued but if I had been asked deputy, I would have,” Varadkar said, in response to Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald.

“This was a sound policy approach and a legitimate legal strategy by the government at the time.

“All ministers from 2005 onwards at all times acted in good faith, in the public interest, in accordance with official advice and in accordance with legal advice from the Attorney General and that’s exactly how they should act.”

Varadkar said that Health Minister Stephen Donnelly had sought advice from the Attorney General as well as a briefing from Department officials.

He added that the Attorney General would be providing a report for Cabinet next week on the legal strategy, which would be published afterwards.

The Taoiseach also said in the Dáil that, when he was Health Minister between 2014 and 2016, he “must have” been briefed on the Government’s legal strategy.

“I must have been briefed on it, the ministers that went before me and after we were briefed on it, so I must have been as well,” Varadkar said.

He added that he would not know definitively until he receives documentation on the matter.

A spokesperson for the Taoiseach told reporters that this afternoon the Department of Health confirmed that the document referred to in the Irish Daily Mail this morning, which the newspaper said indicated that Varadkar had “signed off” on the strategy, actually referred to previous minister. 

Having sought clarification from the department last night, the spokesperson said that this afternoon they got confirmation that the document (which was dated 5 May 2016) “specifically related to a previous minister, it did not relate to Minister Varadkar”.

The message sent from the Department of Health to the Department of the Taoiseach, regarding the document on nursing home charges prepared by the Older Persons Service Oversight and Planning Unit in Health, and sent to an Assistant Secretary in Health on 5 May 2016 reads:

“It is the clear understanding of the Unit that this does not refer to Minister Varadkar, as was, but refers to a previous Minister, as this decision in relation to the range of settlements was apparently made well before his time.”

When reporters asked what minister the document refers, Varadkar’s spokesperson said:

“We don’t know, the Department of Health hasn’t told us, but it wasn’t Minister Varadkar.” 

He went on to state that the response from the department said the document made reference to “a former minister” but didn’t specify which minister. 

The Journal has asked the Department of Health for clarification. 

The Taoiseach’s spokesperson said “successful ministers have stood over the strategy”, adding that the policy has been consistent since Mary Harney was health minister. 

The Attorney General is now examining the issue and is due to submit a report to Cabinet next week on the matter. 

Documentation to be published

Opposition parties have called on the Government to release documents relating to an alleged failure to provide payouts to families of people who were illegally charged for nursing home stays from the 1970s until late 2000s.

Varadkar added, under questioning from McDonald, that documentation around the legal strategy will be published when completely assembled.

However, a Dáil debate on nursing home charges controversy is delayed by one week despite calls from some TDs for time to set aside to discuss the matter in the coming days. 

It follows a report in the Irish Mail on Sunday that successive governments have allegedly pursued a secret strategy aimed at limiting refunds from the State to individuals who were incorrectly charged for public nursing home care.

The report, based on a protected disclosure by Department of Health whistleblower Shane Corr, alleged that multiple governments have since 2011 sought to hide the State’s liability for the charges to prevent a possible €12 billion in payouts to those affected. 

In a statement from the Government last night, a spokesperson said a “limited number of individual cases were settled” and that “no case ever proceeded to a hearing”. 

The spokesperson said: “The legal strategy pre-dated July 2011 and was pursued by successive governments.

“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.

“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 €480 million was paid to former residents or their families. Minister Donnelly has sought advice from the Attorney General and a detailed briefing from his Department.”

‘Aggrieved’ families 

Earlier today, Wexford TD Verona Murphy told The Journal that some families have contacted her following media reports, concerned about the costs they paid for their parents’ care.

She said those families feel “aggrieved and angry” at the discussion of the legal strategy.

“Given the historical nature of this, some of the families are the children of previous residents who may have passed on, and who would have scrimped and saved in order to pay for the care of a nursing home for their mother or father,” she said.

“We all know how expensive nursing homes are, they provide great care and they are expensive.

“And there are situations where people would have had to sell land in order to pay for the nursing home care and people are feeling very aggrieved that that would have happened.”

Murphy and her colleagues in the Regional Independents Group had sought a Dáil debate on the controversy which is set to take place next week.

In the meantime, Murphy said the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee is to hold a private session among its members to discuss the charges.

“We have a number of previous health ministers in either government or opposition and I think they’re going to have to give an account of what it was that they were aware of. 

“We’ve had some of our senior politicians in government yesterday who were very quick to to exonerate themselves from any knowledge of this but I don’t know that that’s credible at this stage.” 

Róisín Shortall, co-leader of the Social Democrats, said documents needed to be released on outlining the details of the strategy and who had been briefed on it.

“I noticed that the Taoiseach said yesterday that he wasn’t party to devising or agreeing the legal strategy. And I don’t think that was the allegation that was made.

“Now, that point hasn’t been addressed by the Taoiseach, whether he was briefed on it or not,” she said, “So I think it’s important that we find out what was that briefing.”

Shortall told Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio One that she was not aware of the strategy from her 18 months spent as a junior minister in the Department of Health.

“The allegation that was made on Sunday was that while the strategy was devised in 2011, though that has also been contested by government, but that the Taoiseach was briefed on it while he was Minister for Health some years later and indeed the subsequent minister Simon Harris.”

Additional reporting by Christina Finn and Tadgh McNally

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