The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has published new consumer protection guidelines for contracts of care for nursing homes.
The mandatory guidelines will be sent out to around 580 nursing home providers in the expectation that nursing home contracts will become more simple and fairer to residents and their families.
After an 18-month review, the consumer watchdog identified a number of potentially unfair terms that are currently being used in nursing home care contracts.
Nursing home providers will now have to review their contracts to ensure that they are in compliance with the new guidelines.
They will be given until around the end of the year to change any potentially unfair terms.
Any residents of nursing homes and their loved ones will now be able to rely on these guidelines to establish if any contract terms are unfair.
The commission says going into a nursing home is usually a tough decision, taken at a stressful time, so it is vital that contracts of care are fair, clear and understandable.
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Commission chairperson Isolde Goggin said: "The decision to move into residential care is usually taken in stressful circumstances. For many people, there are limited options to choose from and moving to another nursing home, if you are not happy, is not feasible.
"This means residents are particularly vulnerable. If there is a lack of transparency in contracts of care, residents and their families are at risk of being tied into terms and conditions that they don't understand or that they would never knowingly agree to."
The commission says the guidelines are a substantial message to the industry, which it hopes will drive up standards in nursing home contracts among providers.
It has also published an accompanying information booklet for consumers to help them understand what they are entitled to expect in contracts of care.
Residents of nursing homes have consumer rights regardless of whether they pay all or some of the costs of their care.
If a resident has entered into a contract that is not in plain understandable language or if they believe that there are terms and conditions in their contract of care which places them at a significant disadvantage or may be unfair, they should write to the nursing home provider setting out their concerns.
The commission's website provides an information booklet and a template letter to help consumers raise their concerns with their nursing home provider.
Ms Goggin said: "The nursing homes sector is currently the focus of considerable attention particularly around fees and charges and a review of the Fair Deal scheme.
"Our guidelines will not resolve all of the issues in this sector, however, our goal in undertaking this work was to ensure that residents and their families have more certainty and clarity in what they, and the nursing home, are committing to when they sign a contract of care.
"If there are any changes, for example, to fees, after the contract is signed, these changes must be reasonable, taking the resident's interests into account and be clearly communicated.
"The law protects consumers from standard form contracts which are imbalanced in favour of a business to the disadvantage of a consumer. While it is up to the courts to decide if a term is unfair, our guidelines highlight examples of potentially unfair terms in contracts of care currently in operation in the sector.
"Our consumer booklet provides assistance to residents who may wish to challenge similar terms if they exist in their contracts of care. I encourage anyone who is concerned or who would like to find out more about their rights to visit our website ccpc.ie."