Care costs burden for elderly to be eased

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Tens of thousands of elderly people will no longer have to sell their homes to pay for long-term care under a £1.3bn plan to be announced by the Government today.

Tens of thousands of elderly people will no longer have to sell their homes to pay for long-term care under a £1.3bn plan to be announced by the Government today.

Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, will unveil a package of measures to ease the burden on pensioners receiving nursing care as part of the national plan for the NHS.

In a Commons statement, Tony Blair will hail the blueprint as the most fundamental reform since the health service was set up in 1948. He will say that all parts of the service and its staff, including consultants, will have to adapt to create a "21st century NHS".

The national plan will promise to "put patients first" by introducing a new maximum waiting time for all treatment, expected to be nine months at first but eventually falling to six. The plan will include measures to tackle the widely varying standards of performance by different hospitals and health authorities; stamp out "perverse incentives", including the rules which allow consultants to work in the private sector and allow nurses to do more tasks that are now the preserve of doctors.

Although private hospitals and clinics could perform some operations cancelled at short notice by the NHS, Labour will reject Tory plans to expand the private sector by giving people incentives to use it.

Under the shake-up of long-term care, all old people living in a residential home will receive free medical care. At present it is means-tested and costs an average of £337 a week. The existing "hotel charges" for personal and social care will continue, but the elderly will be allowed three months in a residential or nursing home free before the means-testing rules come into force.

Under the current system, people with assets of more than £16,000 have to pay the full cost of their own care. Charities claim this forces more than 40,000 elderly people to sell their homes every year.

To combat the problem, Mr Milburn will raise the level of assets allowed to £30,000 and extend schemes to allow councils to give pensioners interest-free loans for their care fees. Residents will be allowed to owe fees to their local authority with the money being claimed back from their estate after they die. The loan would be a mortgage secured against the value of a person's home.

Ministers hope the move will sweeten the pill of theirdecision not to back in full proposals by the Royal Commission on long-term care to scrap all charges for social and personal care.

But charities such as Help the Aged and Age Concern are certain to launch a bitter attack on the refusal to meet such so-called hotel charges.

Mr Milburn will attempt to head off the criticism by offering free intermediate or "halfway house" care for all old people leaving hospital. The aim is to tackle "bed blocking" under which elderly patients cannot leave hospital because of the lack of alternative provision.

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