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High-level row is no use to sick

IT comes as no big surprise to learn that the Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly and the Minister for Health Mary Harney are engaged in a bitter row. When she was appointed by the Government in 2003, Ms O'Reilly ceased to be a probing journalist and became a civil servant, and some cynics suggested that the appointment was meant, at least in part, to muzzle a critical voice.

If that was the intention, it didn't work. Ms O'Reilly has proved a thorn in the side of the political and public service establishment ever since. And that is exactly what an ombudsman ought to be.

Now an investigation by the Ombudsman's office has declared that the State has failed in its statutory duty to provide nursing home care, as evidenced by as many as 300 legal actions against the HSE over difficulties encountered in acquiring such care.

When the Government introduced the Fair Deal scheme in October last year in an attempt to help make care in public and private nursing homes more affordable, Mary Harney said she was determined that the plan would not be open to legal challenge.

This apparently was the Department of Health and HSE's justification for refusing to allow its staff to be interviewed and refusing to release information.

The Ombudsman in turn has accused both bodies of displaying "unacceptable disregard" for the law covering nursing home care.

So, has the Fair Deal plan failed?

We know that fewer than 2,000 of the 13,000 nursing home residents in the scheme have taken an option to have the costs of care taken from their assets after their death.

Most opt to pay the costs of care during their lifetime, leaving any assets they may have intact as inheritance. Only 15pc are willing to let the State make a claim on their estate.

In the past, long-term care for the elderly was fraught with complications and cruel anomalies. There can hardly be an individual in the State who has not witnessed, or personally experienced, the distress and guilt of "putting" an aged relative into a home.

The spectacle of State institutions swapping insults and an apparent complete absence of transparency concerning nursing home care does not make an already painful process any easier.

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