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Ageing society

Has time come to change way homes for elderly in Hong Kong are operated? Lawmaker Fernando Cheung certainly thinks so

  • Making an individual the licence holder, rather than companies, could help with accountability, politician says
  • But industry leader expresses fears that could prevent NGOs from being able to hire people
PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2018, 2:25pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2018, 2:59pm

A debate over whether private companies should be allowed to hold licences to run Hong Kong’s elderly care homes has been triggered after a damning ombudsman report into the industry.

On Thursday, the city’s ombudsman, Connie Lau Yin-hing, revealed that a four-year investigation had uncovered a systemic failure to protect Hong Kong’s elderly population.

Despite issuing thousands of warnings a year, the report said not a single care home in the city had lost its licence over that period.

In response, Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung has called on people, instead of companies, to be held accountable if care home residents are mistreated. However, a government adviser, and an industry representative, do not agree.

Cheung said 90 per cent of licences for the running of homes for the elderly were held by companies, and that figure rose to 99 per cent when it came to care homes for the disabled.

On Friday, Cheung said there was a danger that companies could be registered overseas, making ownership hard to trace, meaning no one would be held accountable in the event a serious issue arose.

The lawmaker said if a care home had its licence revoked, the same owners could start a new company and operate another care home.

“The licensee should be a person,” Cheung said. “Care homes take care of the weakest in society. Shouldn’t real people, instead of companies, take the responsibilities?”

But Grace Li Fai, chairwoman of the Elderly Services Association of Hong Kong, said if individuals were to be held accountable, care home operators, especially NGOs, would find it difficult to hire managers.

Hong Kong must do more to care for the elderly

“If licensees were individuals, there would be criminal responsibilities, and nobody would be willing to do this,” she said.

Dr Lam Ching-choi, chairman of the Elderly Commission, and a member of the government’s Executive Council, said even if companies were banned, operators could shuffle the responsibilities by asking a staff member to be the licence holder.

Instead, Lam said there should be a licensing system for care home workers and managers, so every staff member was held accountable for any wrongdoing.

“Revoking a professional licence has greater impact on the licensee’s career,” Lam said, adding that such a system would likely be more efficient.

Hong Kong’s miserly approach to elderly care is nothing to be proud of

The ombudsman’s investigation, which was heavily critical of the Social Welfare Department, uncovered a host of incidents where elderly residents had been mistreated, but said offences such as administering the wrong medication, or improperly restraining residents, where not illegal under the Residential Care Homes (Elderly Persons) Ordinance and the Residential Care Homes (Elderly Persons) Regulation.

In her report, Lau urged the government to revise the regulations to make such breaches liable to prosecution.

But, that idea was met with a lukewarm response from Wong Yin-yee, the assistant director of the department’s licensing and regulation branch.

Wong said the department would issue warning letters and correction orders to homes breaching regulations, and if the homes did not follow the orders, the branch could prosecute the homes for non-compliance.

She added that if criminal activities were involved, cases would be referred to the police.

But, the assistant director did not say whether the department agreed with the ombudsman’s findings and suggestions, only pointing to the increase in the number of inspectors from 44 in 2015, to 68 this year.