The first public consultation to gather views on a proposed statutory home care scheme is to be launched in May, it was confirmed yesterday.
The consultation, which will allow the public and stakeholders to submit ideas, is the first step on the road to setting up a long-awaited scheme to allow more elderly people and those with a disability to remain in their own homes.
Minister for Older People Helen McEntee told the Irish Independent: "I'm progressing this as a matter of urgency. However, a significant amount of detailed preparation needs to be done before final decisions are taken on the form of a home care scheme and the regulation of these services.
"It is my hope and intention at this stage that a public consultation will be launched in May to allow stakeholders, including older people themselves, their families and healthcare workers to express their views regarding a new home-care scheme.
"Legislation will then be prepared when policy decisions have been taken on issues such as regulation, financing, assessment and eligibility criteria."
A report is also due from the Health Research Board, which will analyse how statutory home care schemes operate in other countries.
The desperate need for a statutory scheme - to replace the HSE-funded home care packages and home help supports - was revealed in the public response to the TV documentary made by fashion designer Brendan Courtney about his family's struggle to secure care for his father Frank, who was left paralysed by a stroke.
It highlighted the lack of financial support for families who do not want a loved one to be a resident in a nursing home under the State-funded Fair Deal scheme.
The minister said that long-term nursing care should be a last resort after home support and other community-based supports have been exhausted.
"At the moment, however, the main statutory scheme for older people is the Nursing Homes Support Scheme, which provides for a system of financial support for those assessed as needing long-term nursing home care," she said.
The move comes as figures show just 16,354 people were in receipt of a HSE-funded home care package in December, despite the need of thousands more for this kind of support to remain in their own homes.
Although this marked a rise from the 15,512 who had a home care package in October, the increase was mainly geared towards easing the trolley crisis, favouring patients who were classed as "delayed discharges" and no longer needed to be in hospital.
Just 180 people in the entire country have an intensive home care package. The winter initiative also saw the number of home help hours rise to 896,118 in December but cut to 830,764 in January.