Health watchdog was deliberately misled by care homes
'Wool pulled over HIQA's eyes'
Aras Attracta fallout continues
The health watchdog has been deliberately misled about conditions in care homes on at least 15 occasions in the past year, according to whistleblower complaints seen by the Irish Independent.
The revelation comes in the wake of the scandal over the treatment of vulnerable residents at the Aras Attracta care home in Swinford, Co Mayo.
Several staff at homes for the elderly and people with intellectual disabilities informed the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) that its inspectors were intentionally given misleading impressions about standards of care.
HIQA also received similar claims from nursing home residents and their relatives.
The most common allegation was that extra staff were drafted in when a care home became aware it was about to be inspected.
Questionable practices, such as locking residents in their rooms for prolonged periods, were also covered up during inspections, it was claimed.
One staff nurse alleged care assistants wrote up nursing plans and falsified staff level documents ahead of an inspection.
"The wool is being pulled over HIQA's eyes," she said.
Another whistleblower, a newly qualified nurse, alleged she was asked by her director to change details of a fall suffered by a resident, to ensure the incident was minimised.
Details of the whistleblower claims were disclosed in documents released under freedom of information rules to Fine Gael TD Fergus O'Dowd.
They emerged amid the continuing fall-out from the Aras Attracta affair, where the horrific mental and physical abuse of residents in a unit of a care home in Swinford, Co Mayo, was exposed by an undercover researcher working for RTE.
The number of staff suspended from the facility as a result of the expose rose to 12 yesterday.
HIQA, which is responsible for inspecting care homes, has been criticised for failing to uncover the scale of the abuse during two inspection visits to Aras Attracta earlier this year.
The scandal has placed the spotlight on how well equipped authorities are to investigate abuse in care homes.
At present, HIQA does not have the power to investigate individual complaints it receives, but can consider these complaints as part of overall inspections.
People with grievances are urged to bring them to the care home in the first instance. They can complain to the Ombudsman if they are unhappy with the care home's response, but only in the case of State-run homes.
They can also go to gardai, if the matter is serious enough.
However, Mr O'Dowd said it was impossible to have confidence in care homes to investigate themselves, given what the whistleblowers had alleged.
"HIQA is obviously being conned by some care homes and is being given a grossly misleading picture," he said. "HIQA go away happy and the care home defaults back to an unacceptable level of care after the inspection.
"This is deeply worrying. The number of whistleblowers coming forward suggests this is a significant problem across the services."
In a statement, HIQA said that while the majority of its inspections were unannounced, nursing homes had been given prior notice for 22pc of inspections conducted last year.
"Where the information comes our way we trigger unannounced inspections to validate if the information is correct,"HIQA said, regarding its response to whistleblowers.
HIQA added it was also able to detect situations where it suspected additional staff were being rostered during inspections.
"We determine if this has happened by looking at the staff roster for previous months, as well as examining planned rosters against the staff on the day. It becomes very evident if staff have just been put in place for the day," the statement said.
"In relation to care plans and records being written up in advance of inspections, we triangulate if the care plan set out is actually delivered by staff.
"We question staff as to how they care for the residents and it quickly becomes evident if the document is actually used for implementing care."
Meanwhile, HIQA has requested a meeting with Ombudsman Peter Tyndall to discuss comments he made in a radio interview, where he expressed disappointment that the health watchdog was not forwarding abuse complaints to his office.
Mr Tyndall said earlier this week that such complaints should have been forwarded under a draft memorandum of understanding between his office and HIQA.
However, HIQA has disputed this and says no agreement is in place yet.
It also says its only discussions with the Ombudsman's office to date have been about sharing information on trends or patterns in relation to information it receives, rather than specific complaints.
The Ombudsman is seeking for complainants to be "signposted" to his office.
The HSE said it was already referring people to the Ombudsman.