Magazine article Public Finance

Councils Hike Home Care Fees by Third to Balance Books

Magazine article Public Finance

Councils Hike Home Care Fees by Third to Balance Books

Article excerpt

Elderly people in England face an average 29% increase in their home care fees this year as councils scramble to make ends meet by cutting services and subsidies, a comprehensive survey by Public Finance has found.

PF has examined the 2007/08 budget details of 87 of England's 150 councils - London boroughs, metropolitans and counties - that provide social services. Almost a quarter are planning to increase the fees they charge elderly and disabled people for home care by more than 40%, and a third by more than 20%. Eight are increasing fees by 100% or more, including one - the London Borough of Brent - which plans to treble its maximum charges.

The increases mean that the cost of the average weekly care package of 11 hours' help with washing, dressing and eating has risen to £133.21. In 2006/07 it was £1 13.63, but in practice only a few paid that as means tests ensured that people were left with an adequate 'buffer' for personal expenses. Weekly caps' further limited the amount anyone was asked to pay.

This year, changes to means-testing policies mean the buffers and caps have been removed. The combined effect of those changes and an increase in the hourly rates means an average 29% increase in the full charge. An 11-hour package will now cost £6,660 a year.

At the same time, the government's annual minimum income guarantee (MIG) for the over-65s - the amount councils cannot touch through charges - has risen by just 4.4% (£325) to £7,738.

Pauline Thompson, policy officer for Age Concern, told PF that the increases left many elderly people short of cash and uncertain from year to year how much their fees would be.

'These increases make older people very anxious.' she said. 'Already councils have restricted services to those with the most serious needs, so if those people now drop out or cut down on their care because they cannot afford it, the consequences could be very damaging. These are short-term cost-saving measures, because some people will just be back later with even more pressing needs, maybe needing to go into a care home or hospital because of it.

Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, chair of the Local Government Association, said: 'These findings reveal a startling gulf between the type of care people expect when they reach old age and the reality of what they may receive. Councils want to provide the services they need and help them safely through the day, but are increasingly unable to do so because central government funding has not kept pace with the demands of an ageing population.'

The survey also reveals the wide variation in home care fees across the country, fuelling concerns that an unfair 'postcode lottery' prevails, three years after the Department of Health introduced its Fairer charing guidance to curtail it.

Hourly charges for home care in 2007/08 range from £3.60 in Bradford to £18 in Brighton & Hove. The maximum weekly charge a council will apply ranges from £11 to £600. In six out of the 87 authorities there is no limit on the maximum someone can be charged, provided a means test shows they will be left with the legally required £148.81 MIG a week to cover housing and subsistence.

Anne Williams, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, told PF that this variation was being evened out, as councils could no longer afford to subsidise care for elderly and disabled citizens and so were converging on charging the most possible. 'The level of increases this year shows that although there has been a huge variation, everyone is now moving towards taking as much money as is legal,' she said. 'Some that were quite generous in the past have had to put big hikes in this year; there's a general move towards charging 100% of what can be taken.'

Brent - which increased some fees by 202% in April - is a case in point. In recent years, it has had two hourly rates for home care: £5.30 for those with savings of less than £21,500 and a higher one of £14. …

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