Chaos and confusion surrounded the closure of Port Elizabeth’s only two fully state-funded frail care centres late last year – a dire forewarning of the controversy that would engulf the move, court papers reveal.
Six weeks before the government contract for the centres was to lapse, the Department of Social Development pressured under-resourced and ill-equipped non-government organisations to take over the care of their 240 patients, describing the situation as a crisis.
This emerged in court papers filed ahead of an application before the Port Elizabeth High Court, set down for Thursday, to decide on a provisional court order, which bars the department from moving patients from the two Life Esidimeni centres – Algoa Frail Care and Lorraine Frail Care.
The department cancelled its contract with Eastern Cape Frail Care, a company in the Life Healthcare group – of which Life Esidimeni is a subsidiary – in June last year.
Robin Ownhouse, a member of the Frail Care Crisis Collective – a group of families with relatives in frail care, said documents handed over by the department showed that, by November, there had been no plan in place to move the patients.
He said minutes from a meeting on November 14 showed how the department had started pressuring NGOs to take patients even though they said they were not equipped to do so.
He said social workers were also sent out in a rush to obtain consent for the patients to be moved – even going as far as asking a woman who only did one patient’s washing to consent to him being moved.
Social Development MEC Nancy Sihlwayi, answering a question from the DA’s Bobby Stevenson on Wednesday, said the plan to transfer patients to NGO facilities remained in place as she considered it economically viable.
The department has advertised recently, for a third time, trying to get suitable centres to take state patients.
So far, the facilities which agreed to take them were found to be unsuited to looking after frail care patients.
The department said in court papers previously it was confident that a service provider would be appointed by the end of February.
This was adjusted later to April, but no facilities have been identified yet to take the patients.
Sihlwayi’s spokesman, Mzukisi Solani, did not respond when asked why a plan to move the patients had not been published yet.
Ownhouse said the delay underlined the inability of the department to properly plan and care for frail care patients.
He said the court order was the only thing, at this stage, protecting the metro from a disaster similar to that in Gauteng, where 111 mentally ill patients died after they were moved to NGOs from Life Esidimeni centres.
Ownhouse said that while the department claimed there had been a meeting on November 14 to ask the two frail care centres to notify families of a transfer, “according to the minutes of this meeting, it wasn’t about that at all”.
He said: “At this meeting, several NPOs were asked to take patients for R4 000 a month, even though none of them had the infrastructure or personnel.
“They were pressured to take these patients and told the department was facing a crisis.”
The department had claimed in court papers that the notification period, to inform families that patients would be moved, started on November 16.
By law, it had to give families 30 days’ notice.
“But only one interview was done on that day,” Ownhouse said.
“The rest were done between December 2 and 22.
“The people who consented were told the centres were closing and asked whether they would take the patients or whether the patients must be placed in alternative care.
“Faced with the dilemma that they cannot care for the patient, many agreed to a transfer.”
Sixteen families had agreed to take their relatives in frail care back into their homes.
“None were really in a position to take care of a frail patient,” Ownhouse said.
“During a day visit to his family’s home, one patient fell and had to be hospitalised.”
The difficult choice the families were given was highlighted by the case of a mother who had agreed to take back her son but was already taking care of nine adults and eight children, with only one adult working.
Another woman had agreed to take her son despite social workers saying her house was dirty and there were signs of extensive alcohol abuse.
Ownhouse said that in his own case, despite his actively communicating with the Department of Social Development, they had written on his family member’s form that he was “untraceable”.
He said despite Sihlwayi’s assurances that she would consider the Health Ombudsman’s report after the Gauteng tragedy, there was no sign that any of his recommendations had been implemented.