‘For 15 years I was hitting my head off stone walls,’ says man who spent €120,000 caring for his mother
Joseph Conroy followed last week’s news about nursing homes with rising anger.
For 15 years, he chased the State for a refund of the €120,000 in nursing-home fees that he had paid for his mother over eight years — because she could not get a bed in a public facility.
He never could understand why the State fought him so vehemently at every turn — he was even asked to “prove” his mother’s entitlement to a medical card after her death.
He describes himself as a man of robust character who does not back down. But even he was put to the pin of his collar when the State’s lawyers dismissively declared he was wrong, and told him to back down and walk away with a penny.
“I could never understand why,” said Mr Conroy, a retired businessman who lives in Portlaoise, Co Laois.
“It went on for 15 solid years and I was hitting my head off stone walls. Only for I’m a very determined individual, another person would have run away.”
All became clear last week with the emergence of the State’s long- standing, top-secret legal strategy to contain refunds due to people wrongly charged for nursing home fees over 30 years.
In a nutshell, it was allegedly to deny, delay, drag out, avoid publicity, and — whatever happens — do not allow a case to come before a judge for fear the State might lose, triggering a flood of fresh claims.
Successive ministers made aware of it included Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
The strategy was outlined in a 2011 memo in a protected disclosure made by Department of Health whistleblower Shane Corr to the Irish Mail on Sunday.
Successive ministers made aware of it included Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who said last week it was never the State’s intention to pay for private nursing home care for medical card holders.
“A total cover-up,” Mr Conroy said this weekend. “Officials were told, ‘Keep them cases dragging on as long as you can’. And it took us 15 years.
"I had to issue court proceedings, and that was the only way I could bring them to the table to talk. I feel frustration and anger.”
It is almost 30 years since Mr Conroy’s mother, Ellen, lost her independence. In 1994, she was 79 and living in an upstairs apartment. But she had mobility and health problems and eventually had to use a wheelchair, meaning she was unable to live at home independently.
Mrs Conroy was a medical-card holder. Her son tried to find her a place in a public nursing home in Laois. None were available.
“It was pure hell,” Mr Conroy said. “We couldn’t get the public nursing-home bed. We could not get her in, and we tried for a couple of years.”
Mrs Conroy’s health was deteriorating, and with no public beds available, Mr Conroy felt there was no option but to place his mother in a private nursing home.
At that time, medical-card holders were entitled to free nursing home care under the Health Act of 1970. But Mr Conroy was told he was liable for the weekly fees at successive private nursing homes she lived in until her death in 2004.
The fees started out at €480 a week, but rose considerably. At the time of Mrs Conroy’s death in 2004, her son had paid around €120,000 in private nursing-home care.
“Lucky enough, I was in business at the time, and I could do it,” he said. “We were delighted to do it, don’t get me wrong.”
Finding that kind of money, especially towards the end of his mother’s life, at a time when he was pulling back from his retail businesses, was not easy. “It was a strain,” Mr Conroy said, and at times a “complete stress”.
He had questioned his mother’s entitlements — as a holder of a medical card — to the State paying for her nursing-home care, writing letters and “getting nowhere”.
“Everywhere I went, I was told I would have to pay the fees,” he said.
There was much debate about nursing-home charges at that time. The ombudsman had been highlighting how the State had wrongly deducted fees from public nursing residents for nearly 30 years.
The Supreme Court ruled these fees were illegal in 2005, after which the government set up a scheme to repay those illegally charged.
The scheme excluded public patients such as Mrs Conroy, who had been forced to pay for private nursing-home care in the absence of a public bed.
An official quietly told Mr Conroy the State should have paid his mother’s fees, but after reading an article in the Herald newspaper a year later, he decided: “I’d better get a solicitor.”
David Nohilly, of Larkin Tynan Nohilly Solicitors, took the case on a “no fee, no foal” basis. Legal proceedings were issued in 2008. Mr Conroy in his statement of claim sought a refund of eight years of nursing home fees, amounting to €120,000 plus interest.
Mary Harney’s office wrote to thank Mr Conroy’s lawyers, mistakenly believing he had dropped the case
Even his legal team was taken aback at the vehemence of the State’s defence.
The State declared Mr Conroy “is not entitled to the reliefs claimed” or “any reliefs whatsoever”.
The State “required proof” that Mrs Conroy “held and/or was entitled to hold a medical card”; “proof” that she was entitled to be in a nursing home”; and “proof” that she was unable to pay the nursing home fees.
The State did not admit Mr Conroy paid the nursing-home fees and “awaited proof thereof”.
In a measure of the official antipathy towards the nursing-home fees litigation at that time, Mary Harney’s office wrote to thank Mr Conroy’s lawyers, mistakenly believing he had dropped the case.
The letter arrived after his lawyers discontinued the original proceedings for technical reasons and issued new proceedings in their place.
“The Minister for Health and Children has asked me to thank you for your letter concerning the notice of discontinuance and to let you know that its contents have been noted,” the letter read.
A government minister thanking a citizen for discontinuing a legal action against the State was unusual — especially when it was not the case.
Mr Conroy’s legal action continued until 2018. He never expected it to drag on as long as it did.
He described the “frustration, hitting your head off a steel door every day. Every letter that came back. Denial, denial, denial”.
He considered walking away “20, 30 times, I was that frustrated, but I would be very strong-willed”, he said. He held firm.
“I knew I was right in the law. The law was with me. We discussed this with my barrister on the very first day I met him. Yes, he says, that’s right. Your mother has a statutory right, but that would bankrupt the country,” he said.
‘It was very stressful – but I knew I was right’
“We kept plugging away and kept pressing for court. I wanted to go into court and I wanted to state the case, but they didn’t want that.”
In 2017, Mr Conroy applied for discovery — and he got it.
The State was now under High Court instruction to hand over its records, which would inevitably have strengthened Mr Conroy’s hand. The State changed tack. His lawyers received an offer to settle.
Mr Conroy was asked to sign a confidentiality clause that precludes him from talking about the terms of the settlement. He concedes that the money offered was less than the sum he was looking for — more than €260,000 with interest.
Mr Conroy said he “took” the offer because of “the likelihood of the court case dragging on”.
“I had had enough of it. It was very stressful in all aspects. It was in your head every morning. But I knew I was right. I knew my legal team was right,” he said.
He was astonished to see his name crop up in a leaked email about the State’s legal strategy on nursing homes published by The Irish Times on Friday. The email was dated May 2017, after his legal team secured the discovery order that forced the State into a corner.
“I confirm that having failed in our attempts to negotiate a settlement ahead of last Tuesday and having considered our legal advices, we had no realistic option other than to consent to a discovery order…”
The email, from a Department of Health official, continued that there was no change in the department’s policy “that discovery should be avoided in all long-stay cases, including the Conroy case”.
It went on: “The reality of making discovery or running a hearing in one of these cases continues to be too risky to be seriously contemplated, and whether we like it or not, settling the Conroy case — if necessary, on terms we may find somewhat unpalatable — appears to be the only way forward.”
The email also confirms two serving government ministers, Helen McEntee and Simon Harris, had reviewed the legal strategy that opposition TDs have described as “callous” and “calculated”.
Mr Conroy’s solicitor, Mr Nohilly, said yesterday the leaked email confirmed their suspicions that the State would settle once a discovery order was granted.
“That is in effect what happened. It is surprising to see the level of discussions at such a high level of our case and the reluctance to resolve it, despite legal advice to the contrary,” he said.
‘I think we need more people like this whistleblower – then Ireland would be a much better place’
What struck Mr Conroy was the tone of the memo and the reference to the “unpalatable” settlement.
“I am not letting that go,” he said. “I have done nothing wrong, only to look for my own hard-earned money back and now they have besmirched me. Everything I did was done for the love of my mother. And the State managed to besmirch that too.”
Mr Conroy believes the legal strategy deterred others less fortunate from pursuing legal actions for nursing-home refunds. Not only those who were forced to pay fees for medical-card holders, he said, but also people with disabilities.
Whistleblower Mr Corr also highlighted last week how 1,200 people with disabilities in long-stay care centres were wrongly denied maintenance payments. A secret memo said had they sued, the State would lose.
“It is the people that have disabilities I feel for now, I really do,” Mr Conroy said. “We would have got through. We handled our own case. But those people, they deserve what they are entitled to.”
He believes there should be a public inquiry, but asked: “What is it going to achieve? This should be settled now. An arbitrator should be sent in there and case by case settled and a cash settlement given to those people with disabilities and anyone who was left out of pocket with nursing homes.”
Mr Corr, suspended from his job for a year now, should be not just reinstated, he should be “promoted to a higher level”, Mr Conroy said.
“I think he’s an incredible individual and we need more like him, and Ireland would be a much better place. I would like to meet him and shake his hand.”
Solicitor Mr Nohilly said Mr Conroy is now considering his legal options.