The lifting of a ban on the use of former nursing homes as refugee accommodation will not lead to any major exodus from the sector, the Government and industry representatives have said.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar played down the prospect of a significant number of care facilities switching to providing refugee accommodation, while organisations representing private nursing homes said the closures seen in recent times are more related to funding issues than any desire to change business model.
Concern over closures in the nursing homes sector last year led to an agreement between the Departments of Health and Integration that procurement guidelines for refugee accommodation exclude nursing homes that were still registered as operators with the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa).
Earlier this week, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and Minister of State Mary Butler wrote to Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman to inform him of the decision to lift the restriction and tell him that former nursing homes could be converted for use as refugee accommodation centres.
The condition is that they would have to wait 18 months following de-registration from Hiqa – a process that itself takes six months to allow residents, families and public health authorities the time to prepare for a closure. The decision to lift the ban was reported by the Irish Independent on Friday.
The Health Ministers said there was a significant number of nursing home closures last year. There were 18 notifications to Hiqa, with 15 of these closing last year, two more shutting this year and one still due to do so. There have been four more closure notifications received this year.
However, Mr Donnelly and Ms Butler said given the challenges facing both departments, and to balance their needs, ”we have decided to take a more flexible approach”. They referenced the 18-month “cooling-off period”.
“This allows for an appropriate closure process for both residents and staff, whilst preventing facilities from being empty indefinitely where they might otherwise provide a source of accommodation [for refugees].”
They said they believe this will allow for new accommodation for refugees while “disincentivising the closure of viable nursing homes”.
Speaking to reporters in Dublin, Mr Varadkar said he does not believe that the change in policy will lead to an exit of nursing home operators.
“We do have nursing homes that are closing and there’s lots of reasons for that,” he said. “We also have more nursing homes that are opening as well and we need to make sure that we have a net increase in the number of nursing home beds.”
There was a net addition of about 90 beds last year and an increase of about 160 so far this year.
Mr Varadkar said there is a need to focus on home care “to make sure that future people have to go a nursing home in the first place or at least if they do, spend less time there than they otherwise would”.
He said the Government is “doing everything we can” to provide accommodation for refugees from Ukraine and people seeking international protection from other countries.
Tadhg Daly, the chief executive of Nursing Homes Ireland, which represents more than 400 private operators, said he believed the change would not drive closures.
“The ban is immaterial really because if you have a viable, sustainable nursing home you’re not just going to decide, ‘hang on a second here I’ll change my operation to an accommodation centre’ on the basis of a potential short-term gain,” he said, adding that “the real issue” was a funding crisis in the sector.