Social care facing budget squeeze

SOCIAL services managers in Essex are set to ration care packages to the elderly because of a forecast overspend of £16 million.Essex County Council currently expects its adult social care division to go over budget by £15.

SOCIAL services managers in Essex are set to ration care packages to the elderly because of a forecast overspend of £16 million.

Essex County Council currently expects its adult social care division to go over budget by £15.9 million by the end of March next year.

Spending on home, residential and nursing care for the elderly has alone accounted for a £11.7 million overspend on services.

As a result, service managers have told leading politicians at the county council they plan to restrict future purchasing of care packages, leave non-essential social care posts unfilled and put off any further development plans for the service until finances are brought under control.

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In practice, this could mean limiting people's access to care at home and offering them residential care instead - a move which could save the council more than £1,600 per person per week.

It could also mean offering patients less care in terms of the hours provided to those who need it each week.

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But the county council's cabinet member for adult social care yesterday denied the changes amounted to cutbacks.

The moves were, the county council claimed, “checks and balances” that would keep care packages within the council's budget. The council also claims it already offers greater choice and quantities of care to its service users than neighbouring authorities.

But Julie Young, the Labour group's spokesman for adult social care, said she was concerned by the current situation, adding: “I am very concerned about any restrictions to choice and certainly the Labour Government and Labour councillors want people to have the utmost choice in terms of the care they receive.

“We would have hoped the administration would have been better prepared for this and not got into the situation of having to restrict the types of care packages offered.

“This is the time of year when people most acutely depend on social services and when social services are called upon more than any other time. It is a difficult time for the frail and the elderly.”

Mrs Young added she would be looking into the matter in detail at the next adult social care policy development group meeting in January.

Sarah Candy, cabinet member for adult social care, said: “In order to avoid a projected overspend within the service being realised, the county council has taken a number of steps to manage this growth.

“We are not proposing cutbacks; we are putting in place a series of practical checks and balances to ensure that we are providing a compassionate care service to older people in Essex while working within our budget.

“The situation has arisen through simple demographics: we have more and more older people to care for. People who live in Essex are living longer, and it is a wonderful place to retire to, which many people do.

“To reflect that, the council's care budget has increased by 28% and the number of people supported in their home has increased by 34%. This is good news and exactly what the council wanted to achieve.

“However, at the moment we provide larger care packages than any other comparable council. We recently reached the half-year point and realised that if we were to continue at this pace, there would be a danger of overspending. So the question is, how do we grow this service while sticking to our budget? The answer is that we review people's care packages at appropriate intervals, or in response to changes in circumstances. This will ensure that care packages will remain relevant and cost-effective.

“Having adopted this strategy now, we are confident that we will still be providing a comparable service - and probably one that remains more generous than those of other councils - by the end of the financial year."

Margaret Fisher, Liberal Democrat group spokesman for adult social care, said she was unaware of the restrictions on care but did say: “Social services staff do their best but we are getting more and more people who need more and more packages, particularly the disabled adults who do cost an awful lot of money.”

The adult social care budget is £267 million in total.

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