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Councils failing to properly inform families' choices over care

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Families are paying too much for care because “too often” local authorities are not providing enough information to enable them to make informed decisions, according to the Local Government Ombudsman.

A report by the ombudsman identifying common faults by local authorities around social care says councils sometimes give “wrong or misleading information”, or provide details over the telephone rather than in writing.

It also finds councils are making mistakes over ‘top-up’ fees, the money making up the difference between the amount the council will pay (including a resident’s contribution) and the full cost of a more expensive placement. This is usually paid for by relatives.

The report, ‘Counting the cost of care: the council’s role in informing public choices about care homes’, suggests some councils leave care homes to collect residents’ contributions and top-up payments, leaving placements vulnerable if payments are not made. Others are leaving care homes to reach top-up agreements with residents or third parties, which can result in “avoidable disputes” about what has been agreed with the council.

The ombudsman, Dr Jane Martin, found some care providers charge residents unnecessary top-up fees “behind the council’s back”. “We hold councils responsible for such failings because the care provider is acting as an agent of the council when it enters into an agreement to care for someone,” the report states. “In such cases, we will ask the council to refund the top-up. Councils will then have to seek their own redress from the care provider.”

Dr Martin said people need as much information as possible when confronted with what can be an “emotionally-charged decision”.

“I would urge all councils to look at the information they provide from the potential resident’s point of view to ensure their literature and communications minimise the confusion for those who need advice and help.”

Ray James, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, said it was “helpful” that the ombudsman was sharing learning.

“The report begins by acknowledging that these are decisions that are often taken in really difficult times in families’ lives so it’s so important that we do all we can to make sure they’ve got the information that they need to be able to make an informed choice,” he said.

“For many people, it will be the second most important financial decision they make in their lifetime after buying their home, so we would always encourage people to seek independent financial advice given the issues involved.”

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