James M. Berklan, McKnight's Editor
James M. Berklan, McKnight’s Editor

You can thank some boneheaded long-term care executives from across the pond for the latest black eye to your profession.

It’s another wake-up call that even though it might sound tedious, well thought-out policies are needed. And they’re needed before you’re exposed as some supposedly crass, uncaring bottom(line) feeder.

The fuss is over a Daily Mail story out of Great Britain headlined: “Care home orders grieving daughter to pay 3,000 [British Pounds] … because she didn’t give 28 days’ notice of her father’s DEATH.”

An extra special touch: The daughter received the notice the day after her father’s funeral.

Kenneth Cann had been living at Highcliffe Nursing Home in Highcliffe, Dorset, in southern England for about 17 months when he died in late January. The 79-year-old had suffered from dementia for a long period.

His daughter, Sue Cann, had no complaints about the care rendered at the seaside facility. But she did go public with what she thought was an incredibly insensitive and unnecessary bill. Her mother, who died of cancer last year, apparently had signed a care contract for Kenneth that contained a clause requiring a four-week notice “in event of a resident moving out or passing away.”

The bill for 3,052.16 British Pounds equals nearly $5,000. That would be on top of the nearly $100,000 that was paid for the previous 17 months’ care.

Kenneth Cann had his belongings moved from the room he shared with another resident the day he died, according to his daughter. That left her all the more baffled by the extra month of billing. She said a week to 10 days’ worth of charges might be more in order, a figure also offered by the chief executive of Britain’s National Care Association.

But even that seems long. If the provider were operating a clean ship, just what would take more than a day to straighten up the living quarters? Especially with the deceased’s personal belongings already removed.

I put a quick call in to Maureen Cahill, the administrator at Spurgeon Manor Retirement Community in Dallas Center, IA, and a long-time acquaintance, to see how things are handled there.

“When someone passes away, it’s a bit of a ‘gray’ area for us,” she began, drawing a silent “uh-oh” from me.

“It depends on the family,” she added, restoring my faith. “If they’re out of town and want my staff to box up belongings and put them somewhere, we do. But if they want to move things themselves and can’t get here for, say, two weeks, we need to keep charging them. [But] as soon as they’re out of the room, they stop paying. It depends on us, as to how soon we refill the room.”

The only case where ongoing charges take place after a person has died or moved out comes in the independent townhome section, Cahill noted. But even then, the charge [under contract] is just a few hundred dollars a month for a maintenance fee — until the independent unit can be rented again.

The good news is that Kingsley, the British provider, which operates 23 facilities, quickly came off its perch once the story rain in one of Britain’s biggest newspapers. At first on Tuesday, its website featured a home page that was bizarrely dominated by a statement from the company’s CEO that apologized for “distress caused to Ms Cann” without ever giving context to what “this unfortunate incident” was. By Wednesday, clearer heads had prevailed and the home page was gussied up so that the apology was at the bottom and had a reasonable introduction so people could tell what the CEO was apologizing about.

His message expounded on new policies. They include charging for only seven days after a resident’s death and giving more attention to the timing of correspondence with family members after a death.

It’s a start, but neutral observers have to wonder: How did it even come to this point?

And less benevolent observers might reasonably ask: How long was this extended post-death payment policy in place? And how many people did it rip off?