Care homes are failing to provide contracts and may be breaking the law by neglecting to tell residents and their families about important terms and conditions, a Which? investigation has found.
The consumer watchdog contacted 50 homes on the premise of looking for care for an elderly relative and requested documents including a sample contract – but fewer than one in 10 provided the information.
Which?’s investigators received four contracts – three of which included terms that could be considered unfair to residents – including charging fees for a month after death and the right to terminate a contract with 24 hours notice for undefined “detrimental behaviour”.
The other 46 homes refused to send a sample contract, in many cases urging our investigators to visit or directing them to websites that did not provide the information.
When Which? received reports from more than 500 members of the public about their experiences with care home contracts, only 54 per cent said the provider checked if they understood the document they signed.
More than a quarter (27 per cent) said no-one from the care home checked if they understood the terms and conditions, while 19 per cent said they did not know if checks were made.
Of those who said no checks were carried out, almost a third (31 per cent) said they did not understand the contract at all, or did not understand it very well.
Although most people in Which?’s care arrangers survey (81 per cent) claimed to understand their care home contract well – there was confusion around important terms.
Four in 10 (38 per cent) said they did not know if their care home could evict a resident without giving a reason and more than a third (34 per cent) said they did not know whether the home could evict a resident without giving the notice period stated in the contract.
Three in 10 (31 per cent) did not know if the home could charge fees after a resident vacated a room, possibly because they had died.
More than a third (34 per cent) said they did not know whether the home could evict a resident without giving the notice period stated in the contract.
Any care home that fails to provide prospective residents and their families with important information they need to make an informed decision risks being in breach of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations.
Which? believes the lack of transparency over contracts leaves potentially vulnerable people open to exploitation – and sees them in some cases hit with exorbitant bills or led to believe they are tied into unfair terms and conditions they would never have knowingly agreed to.
Our Care Needs Care Now campaign has heard stories about the care system from more than 1,000 people – with some claiming stress linked to unfair contract terms contributed to a loved one’s death or made their last years miserable.
Which?’s findings come days before a deadline for the Government to respond to the Competition and Markets Authority’s damning care home market study – Jeremy Hunt’s first big test since adding social care to his responsibilities as health secretary.
The CMA also raised concerns about care homes failing to provide contracts when asked and warned homes risk breaking consumer law – either by failing to give residents and families sufficient time to read contracts, or in some cases only giving them a contract after they have moved in or failing to let them see it at all.
While the upcoming Green Paper should address the badly-needed fundamental reform of the broken social care system later this year, Which? is calling on the Government to act now on the competition authority’s recommendations to strengthen consumer protections for care home residents and relatives including on contracts, unfair fees and evictions.
Alex Hayman, Which? Managing Director of Public Markets, said:
“It’s unacceptable that care homes are making it difficult for people to get hold of contracts and the terms and conditions they are signing up to when making such an important life decision.
“Far too many care home residents are hit with unexpected fees or contract terms – which can have far-reaching and devastating consequences for vulnerable people and their families at an already distressing time.
“The Government must now ensure the rules governing care homes are fit for purpose and adequately protect residents and their families in its upcoming response to the competition authority’s market study.”
Sample responses from Which? Care Needs Care Now campaign:
1.“The manager said, due to the type of dementia, she would have to place our friend on 24/7 one-to-one care at a cost of £15 per hour. The bills went up from £4,000 per month to over £15,000. We protested but were told that we had signed an agreement saying this could be done. The agreement gave no indication of the costs involved.”
2. “My mother was served an eviction notice (28 days) without explanation. The manager refused to discuss it with her, or to admit an advocate (from the organisation used by the LA). My mother was totally physically dependent, so on her behalf I complained in writing to the home and its management company + copied in the CQC and others. I sought advice widely and ultimately conceded that the contract has a clause stating that residents may be asked to leave, and explanation may not be given. There was no redress to the Care Act as she was self-funded so apparently she had a tenant/landlord agreement?!.”
3.“The day after his death, when I asked the home owner about the fees for that month and whether we would get any money back (around £3,500/month) I was told that we would not, as the contract that we signed said that at whatever point in the month a resident dies, there will be no refund for the rest of that month. Even though we were prepared to fully clear his room that day, we never received a penny back. Upset from just losing Dad, I was not in a fit state to challenge her on this. I or Dad must have signed a contract for his admission into the home, though I don’t remember doing so, as the time of crisis that had led to us finding him a place in a home he could afford, was so stressful and we were so desperate.”
4.“I was only given the contract to sign after my mother moved in which I only signed not accepting a particular clause. They charged for the room at full rates for 30 days after someone dies. I had previously asked if there were any exit/vacation charges and had been told ‘No’.
Notes to editors:
Which? contacted 50 care homes by telephone posing as the relative of a prospective resident to request additional information, including contracts in June/July 2017. Which? obtained only four sample contracts from care home providers in its investigations. Of that sample, 3 out of the 4 contracts contained terms that could be considered detrimental to the consumer. Potentially unfair terms included demanding that relatives take on joint legal liability for care home fees, the ability of a care home to terminate the contract within 24 hours for undefined “detrimental behaviour” and asking bereaved families to pay for their loved one’s room and care for up to a month after their death.
In November 2017, Which? carried out a survey among 1,012 members of the general public who had been involved in arranging long-term care in a care home for themselves or someone else. 573 people responded to questions about care home contracts.
In its care home market study, the CMA (published 30 November 2017) made several recommendations to regarding contracts, including: (1.) Recommending to government that existing sector-specific regulations are strengthened to require registered care homes to provide a copy of their standard (self-funder) contract, and a summary of important terms and conditions, on their websites. Where a care home does not have a website, the contract and summary could be included in any marketing materials or information packs. (2.) Recommending that sector regulators should review and, where necessary, strengthen their existing guidance to make clear that a copy of the contract and a summary of the most important terms and conditions should be given to prospective residents and their representatives at an early stage of their decision-making process, and explained to them in a timely way. (3.) Recommending that to help facilitate the provision of clear precontract information to prospective residents and their representatives in a more consistent way, sector-specific regulations should be strengthened to require registered care home providers to use a model template in summarising their most important terms and conditions clearly and prominently.
Which? is campaigning to convince the Government to confront the care crisis and ensure high-quality, affordable elderly care is available to all. Find out more about our campaign and sign our petition here. http://which.co.uk/carenow
Which? Elderly Care is a free website offering practical, impartial information and advice about arranging care in the UK. The information on the site is aimed at relatives and friends of people in need of care advice but it can also be used by people arranging care for themselves. For consumer guidance about contracts visit https://www.which.co.uk/elderl
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