A HEALTH trust has been forced to apologise after it overcharged scores of adults with a learning disability for utility bills.
The Southern Health and Social Care Trust has apologised to residents and their families after it emerged people living in supported facilities across the trust area were charged in full for all fuel and heating bills, even though trust staff members also used the utilities.
In facilities where staff also live part-time, health trusts must contribute to bills.
The practice of charging residents for all bills was branded “potential financial abuse” by a regulator.
It is understood around 85 residents at all eight facilities across the Southern trust have been affected.
The facilities include Ardaveen in Bessbrook, Co Armagh; Bowen’s Close in Lurgan, Co Armagh; Glanree in Newry; Granville Manor in Dungannon, Co Tyrone; Lilburn Hall in Lurgan, Co Armagh; Orchard House in Loughgall, Co Armagh; Shanlieve in Kilkeel, Co Down, and Teach Sona in Mullaghbawn, Co Armagh.
The trust said it will repay residents who were overcharged - a bill which is estimated to run into thousands of pounds.
The Detail repeatedly asked the trust how long the practice went on for and how much money was involved.
However, the trust did not directly respond, adding that the total cost “is not available as this is an ongoing process”.
Concerns were first raised during a Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) inspection of Granville Manor in April last year.
The inspection revealed that “information was provided which identified potential inappropriate charges to service users for utility bills, such as oil and electric”.
“The inspector was advised that service users were charged for the dwelling used by members of staff,” the inspection report read.
The report noted that “this was an inappropriate charge to service users and the practice had been previously identified by RQIA as potential financial abuse”.
An RQIA spokesman said during the inspection report “concerns were raised regarding the arrangements for charging service users for utility bills”.
“The trust advised RQIA that this charging process was operated at eight of its supported living services,” he said.
“RQIA discussed the appropriateness of the charging arrangements and as a result the Trust agreed to address these issues and implement a more suitable process for charging service users.
“The trust has advised RQIA that it is in the final stages of engagement with service users and their representatives in relation to timeframes for repayments to service users.”
The trust said it had “been contributing to these bills since July 2022”.
“The trust has engaged with service-users and their families as well as with RQIA and Independent Advocacy Services in relation to tenant contributions toward utility bills in Trust managed supported living facilities,” a spokesman said.
“A more suitable process for charging service users has now been implemented.
“The process to reimburse service users for overpayment of utility bills is ongoing.
“We apologise for any distress this may have caused to the tenants and their families.”