MPs back return to free care in old age

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The Independent Online
People should receive free nursing care in their old age, whether in an NHS hospital or a private nursing home, MPs said yesterday.

The change is "the most immediately attractive" that could be made in tackling the problem of funding long-term care for the elderly, the Commons Health Committee said. It pronounced warnings that the UK faces a demographic time bomb over ageing "downright alarmist".

Although demand for such care will rise, there is "no immediate funding crisis", MPs from the cross-party committee said as they launched their report yesterday.

The proposal submitted by the Royal College of Nursing "would tackle the most manifest unfairness in the present system", the report concluded.

At present someone in a hospital acute ward receives free nursing care while people with similar problems in nursing homes are means-tested for their care. The public found such an "illogical and indefensible" distinction "baffling" and the RCN pointed out that this means that the "physical location, rather than the individual's needs, determines whether or not the NHS pays for care".

"Access to nursing care is a fundamental right," said Christine Hancock, the RCN's general secretary. "Nursing is free for a young man who has his hernia repaired, it is free for wealthy middle-aged people. It is only questioned for people in their eighties."

The Government has said that implementing the change in England would cost the taxpayer an extra pounds 180m a year and the committee called for the proposal to be examined as soon as possible.

The report also criticises the Government for failing to provide satisfactory answers to the question of how to fund such care in future. The proposed "partnership scheme" - where individuals who insure for their care at retirement will be able to keep a larger part of their assets - will "at best" form "a useful part of an overall package", the committee said. For the foreseeable future, many people will be too poor to afford such schemes.

Proposals which would allow people to take a lower pension on retirement in return for a higher pension later offer a solution only for "a minority of rich people".

In addition, the Government has failed to provide even rough costings for its proposals, so that "the taxpayer is in effect being invited to sign a blank cheque".

While a range of options needs to be considered, the committee said "a major option is to maintain the status quo" - where general taxation provides NHS care free at the point of delivery, but social care remains subject to a means test.

Sally Greengross, director of Age Concern, welcomed the report but called for more clarification of the boundaries between health care, which is free and social care, which is means-tested. She expressed concern that the committee suggested a ceiling on the cost of care at home.