Eilish O'Regan: 'Bringing clarity to contracts will help avoid distress on both sides'
The concept of nursing home residents as 'consumers', in the same way people buy insurance or some other commercial service, has been missing in the debate about their care up to now.
When it comes to looking after the elderly, the focus has been mostly on quality of service, access and cost. But their rights as consumers are at the heart of much of their grievances, in particular about controversial top-up charges levied by private nursing homes in recent years.
That is why the first legally binding guidelines from the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission will be welcomed, bringing clarity on what the contracts between the nursing home and the resident should involve in a bid to avoid rows, distress and confusion for both sides.
It is good for the resident and the nursing home.
It may sound overly technical but it transpires that private nursing home residents are protected by the EU Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts regulations. Many residents and their relatives felt they were unfairly hit with charges which were imposed to cover services not included in the State's Fair Deal scheme which subsidises nursing home fees.
A report by Age Action found residents were being asked to pay out-of-pocket fees of between €15 to €100 a week.
Some families were told if the charge was not paid, the nursing home would stop providing care to their mother.
A vacuum of knowledge was allowed to arise which served nobody.
It's unfair to malign private nursing homes which for the most part work hard to provide a home from home for older people while also having to operate a viable business.
It's also unlikely the under-pressure €1bn Fair Deal scheme, already straining this year to provide care to over 23,000 people, will be extended to include payment for these extras in private nursing homes.
So the contract the resident or their appointed representative signs before they enter the nursing home is key, according to the consumer watchdog.
It must be clear and simply understood, protect both parties' interests and have no 'small print' which misleads or causes surprise.
If charges are imposed, they must be itemised and set out as mandatory or optional.
There cannot be any surprises after that - if charges change or increase, they must be reasonable. The resident must be notified in advance and agree.
The watchdog's staff have pored over a lot of contracts and spoken to all sides so they have a good idea of the other complaints which come up, such as visiting rights.
If someone believes a nursing home is in breach, there is a template letter on www.ccpc.ie that they can download. There is also an easy-to-read consumer version of the guidelines.
If they want to take it further, it is a matter for the courts to decide if the law if not being followed.
But these clear guidelines are aimed at avoiding this hassle and upset.