Homes probe in Fair Deal 'boycott' row
Competition watchdog says it 'will take appropriate action' on nursing homes meeting
The competition watchdog appears to have stepped up its inquiries into a meeting of nursing home operators who discussed boycotting the Fair Deal scheme to increase their fees from the State.
The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission says it "will be taking appropriate action" over the secret meeting organised by the trade association Nursing Homes Ireland and attended by operators, according to a letter seen by the Sunday Independent.
It is inquiring into "the conduct of Nursing Homes Ireland", and says it treats any effort by trade associations to increase the price of healthcare to consumers as "a very serious matter".
Details of the mooted "boycott" of the State's financial support scheme for nursing home residents were contained in minutes of the meeting that were first published by the Sunday Independent.
The letter was sent to Thomas Byrne, the Fianna Fail TD, who forwarded the minutes to the competition watchdog after receiving them anonymously in the post.
The disclosures have prompted inquiries by both the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and an investigation by the Dail's Public Accounts Committee.
The CCPC is also examining the leaked emailed instruction to "delete and destroy" the minutes of the meeting.
The instruction was given by the directors of Nursing Homes Ireland at a board meeting just weeks after the contentious meeting took place, and was emailed to NHI's legal advisers, Eversheds.
The minutes of the meeting were taken by Eversheds, who addressed the meeting. Sources close to nursing home operators say the decision to destroy the minutes was because some of their content was allegedly being disputed.
According to the minutes, nursing home operators also mooted a refusal to admit new residents discharged from hospitals and controlling the number of new beds to try and secure a better price for their services.
Lawyers had to repeatedly warn the operators that they risked "dawn raids" and an investigation by the competition authority, if they took collective action to increase their funding.
In addition to the competition issues, the attendance at the meeting of Brian McEnery, an accountant to the nursing home sector, raised concerns of a possible conflict of interest. Mr McEnery is chairman of the Health Information and Quality Authority which is responsible for regulating nursing homes.
Mr McEnery has resisted calls to step down as chairman of the Health Information and Quality Authority, which has oversight of private nursing homes. At the Public Accounts Committee meeting, Mr McEnery denied there was a conflict of interest because he is a financial adviser to some nursing homes. He said HIQA had "no role" in the financial affairs of nursing homes and there was "a complete firewall" around the regulation of nursing homes.
In a statement, the CCPC said it continues to examine information on "potential anti-competitive conduct in the private nursing home sector".
The CCPC said that it is up to the courts to decide whether there has been a breach of competition law. The CCPC's primary objective is to end any potential anti-competitive behaviour, efficiently, by securing commitments on future behaviour by engaging with the CCPC or through the courts.
Nursing home operators have come under the spotlight in recent months following a series of revelations in this newspaper about the scale of extra charges imposed on older residents.
Speaking at the Nursing Homes Ireland's annual conference last week, the Health Minister Simon Harris warned operators that "they need to fix the problem or I'll fix it".