South Eastern Health Trust to drop 'meals on wheels' daily service
A plan to stop daily 'meals on wheels' deliveries to older people's homes has been criticised by the commissioner for older people and the SDLP.
The South Eastern Health Trust said it has taken a "cost effective" decision to deliver 14 frozen meals every two weeks, instead of an every day service.
It said carers will still visit those who need help to heat or eat meals.
But the commissioner for older people said she was "very worried" about the withdrawal of a "vital service".
Claire Keatinge told the BBC's Talkback programme: "Across the UK and Ireland, 30% of older people admitted to hospital from home suffer from malnutrition; 86% of patients at risk of malnutrition come from their own homes."
She said it was "absolutely appalling" that 295 older people affected by the move had not been consulted before the matter was raised in the media.
The proposal was revealed in the Northern Ireland Assembly on Monday by the SDLP's health spokesman, Fearghal McKinney.
He said the South Eastern Health Trust's plans to stop daily deliveries would reduce older people's contact with carers.
"They are the eyes and ears, a safety check if you like, to report on the changing health needs of older homebound adults," he told the assembly.
He said while the current Transforming Your Care health review plans were aimed at "provision in the community to keep people out of hospital", the trust's actions "may put them in hospital in a weakened state".
However, the South Eastern Health Trust has taken issue with his remarks.
Its director of nursing and older people's service, Nicki Patterson, said any older person who needed help with their frozen meals would still receive daily visits from health care staff.
"I would like to reassure people that the nutritional value of the meals is as good, if not better, than the current meals," Ms Patterson said.
"If an individual needs further services, such as help with heating and eating meals, then that service is provided by our staff, and there will be no change."
Currently, Northern Ireland's five health trusts deliver meals to older people in their own homes on a daily basis, in what is known as a community meals service.
The Belfast Trust is the biggest provider, supplying 5,208 community meals each week to 1,025 people.
The Western Health Trust commissions approximately 2, 854 community meals per week to 740 people.
The Southern Health Trust pays contractors to provide hot daily meals rather than a chilled or frozen service, but deliver to a relatively small number of people. Only 47 people receive its community meals.
The Northern Health Trust provides 1,639 community meals per week to 270 clients, but there have been very few new referrals for several years.
The South Eastern Health Trust currently commissions approximately 1,300 community meals per week to 295 eligible older people.
It has not consulted those who receive the meals about the change from fresh to frozen.
Ms Patterson told the BBC's Nolan Show that the process of awarding a contract to a frozen meal provider had already gone out to tender but was not yet complete.
She said all the older people who are set to be affected by the move are to be "individually engaged with".
"What we need to recognise is that in a very challenging financial climate throughout the public sector in Northern Ireland, and there's certainly been considerable coverage of that in the budget agreement over the last 24 hours, it is incumbent on all of us who work in the public sector to review how we're providing services.
"If we can provide as good a service as previously, in a more cost effective way, then we absolutely need to consider that."
However, the commissioner for older people said the way the South Eastern Health Trust had gone about the process was "entirely unacceptable".
Ms Keatinge complained that the change was effectively "de facto".
"The process is already out to tender and the individual needs of today's and tomorrow's older people appear not to be taken into consideration," the commissioner said.
In a statement on Monday, the South Eastern Trust said that the frozen meals were "carefully specified by experienced trust staff" and were "in line with strict dietetic guidance".