Matt Wort, a partner and health and social care specialist at Birmingham-based Anthony Collins Solicitors, makes a passionate plea for an integrated approach to social care.
The social care sector in the West Midlands is reaching breaking point. Faced with a funding crisis and the complex care needs of an ageing population, care providers are struggling to cope, and it’s essential that local authorities, the NHS and private firms work together to find a solution.
“From ensuring procurement processes are fair and consistent throughout the region, to pooling together staffing resources to combat employment issues, a joined-up approach, in which the region’s first mayor should be the catalyst, must take centre stage.
“A mounting problem for care providers is the huge inconsistency in procurement protocol across the region’s council districts.
“For example, Staffordshire County Council’s price-driven procurement strategy focuses almost solely on securing the lowest fee level possible, however this merely succeeds in creating a ‘race to the bottom’ where firms bow to intense cost competition to succeed - often at the detriment of care.
“As well as reducing standards, this is a breach of Care Act responsibilities, which states that bodies must place the needs of an individual ahead of anything else. This approach must be eliminated.
“The West Midlands will soon elect its first mayor, providing an opportunity for the region to claim autonomy over its future.
“One of the mayor’s first priorities should be to act as a figurehead to stimulate conversations between the West Midlands Combined Authority, representatives from the wider Midlands region, the NHS and care providers.
“If West Midlands communities are to prosper, it is vital that these parties work together to agree consistent procurement standards across the region, as well as a renewed focus on best-value outcomes for the end user, ensuring dignity, accountability and a high standard of care… not a postcode lottery.
“In the recent budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond finally acknowledged the need for an immediate injection of capital into the social care system, pledging £2bn in additional funding over the next three years.
“Whilst this is clearly only a short-term solution, care providers in the region need to act quickly to take advantage of the availability of funds, including renegotiating rates to accommodate for increases to the National Living Wage and the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy.
“The Chancellor also promised a Green Paper, which must look past current financial pressures and focus on fixing a broken system - introducing legislation that better regulates how to cap catastrophic costs for individuals and how to fund care in a more creative way.
“Businesses in the West Midlands should lobby for their own interests, to make sure the region is not left behind when this paper is published in the summer.
“In the meantime, care providers should begin to take steps to ease financial pressures. With expensive agency workers often running up huge costs for providers with staffing shortages, there are opportunities to drive savings, but only if local providers work together.
“By creating a regional ‘bank’ of staff, providers can establish a ‘pool’ of temporary employees in a local area. A potential business opportunity, this would significantly reduce costs, cutting out agency margin.
“There is no denying the financial strain facing adult social care in the West Midlands, with procurement and staffing issues pushing care providers to the limit.
“However, the focus now should fall on the need to re-evaluate tender processes, promote collaborative working and capitalise on robust leadership. Local authorities and care providers must work together to ensure the region is equipped to deal with these challenges now, and for future generations.”