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Personal budgets for dementia. What's the harm in them, and are the right people benefiting?

Personal budgets held by individual people might allow more flexibility in choice and control over health services. So what’s the harm in them?

Barry Schwartz’s famous book “The paradox of choice”, summarising a lot of other evidence, contests the assumption that maximising collective welfare of citizens is achieved through maximising individual freedom.

On May 8th 2015, there’ll be a change in government in the UK (unless the arithmetic happens to throw up another Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, which is quite unlikely). It is likely that all the major political parties will wish to implement a form of ‘integrated’ or ‘whole person care’, with the merging of health and social care. It is a moot point how early on people, if at all, will be offered the chance of a ‘unified personal budget’.

A particular group of people for whom personal budgets may be considered are persons with dementia. It is therefore perhaps a bit disappointing that some of the same issues which existed many years ago are still lurking in some form even now.

No matter how much effort you put into ‘compassion’ or ‘Dementia Friends’, the care system is never going to be acceptable in the light of dangerous financial cuts to social care.

The “one size fits all” philosophy seems to be pervasive in the Government approach to personal health budgets, whichever Government pursues it. It’s as if it doesn’t matter who is the singer is because the song is the same: like Pharrell’s “Happy” was originally recorded by Cee Lo Green (allegedly).

Certain people with early dementia might be particularly prone to impulsive or risk-taking behaviour, so there is a reasonable question whether some persons with dementia – despite full legal capacity – are “safe” to have personal health budgets themselves. But this I feel strengthens my argument for a proper system of delivery of personal health budgets, not undermining them. When personal budgets work for dementia, as explained by Colin Royle here, they work very well.

A potential danger is that somebody is given a list of ‘options’ for care support planning, and effectively told to get on with it. It can be difficult to get to the precise details of resource allocation systems, and, without knowing such details, it is difficult to ascertain whether they legally constitute a process acting to the detriment of the group of people with dementia.  This leaves individual local authorities open to an accusation of indirect discrimination, offending the Equality Act (2010). There are various sources of factors which might cumulatively  cause certain people to be more disadvantaged than others: e.g. an ability to ‘self-assess’ one’s needs in a questionnaire (with age being a confounding factor).

Personal budgets might be offered in a number of ways: namely those which were directly commissioned and managed by the local authority, third party managed accounts, direct payments or a mixture of these things. Concerns might come from all sorts of quarters: such as actual budget holders who don’t feel that the resources allocated meet their needs, or the professions who don’t feel  that certain candidates  are suitable in the first place.

This is perhaps one of those uncommon instances where ‘cutting out the middle man’ is in fact a dangerous idea. The actual calculation of resource allocation for an individual candidate is emphasised rather than the calculation of running the whole system adequately, in much the same way that the improvement in wellbeing in a personal budget might accrue from having a choice at all rather than the actual proposed care intervention.

Take,  for example, this passage:

Quality support planning needs the investment of time. In the ideal world, presented by those who ‘run with’ the agenda, everyone is able to take an active part in making decisions for themselves and choosing their own care to meet their needs, as defined by themselves. The reality is that some groups have not been able to engage in the process of taking an active role in their own support planning; they are effectively excluded. This may be because they lack the capacity to manage a direct payment or organise a personal budget themselves, or because they lack support systems around them, such as family to help them do this.”

Clearly not everyone has benefited from the “Prime Minister’s Dementia Challenge”. For example, the Dementia Advocacy Network went bust at the end of last year.  And yet this is precisely the time when people with dementia, and caregivers, need emotional support, and need to be safeguarded against forms of abuse including financial and legal. It appears that people who have benefited most from personalisation are those with the best advocacy and loudest voices.

Even with the most-straightforward appearance of self-assessment application procedures for personal budgets might require an enormous amount of professional support.  There are various reasons why persons with dementia might have special obstacles in their uptake of personal budgets, as articulated well by the Mental Health Foundation: two for example include a residual stigma and discrimination against such citizens, and also the fact that some citizens might not have a reliable correct diagnosis in the first place.

Self-directed support (SDS) has as its central feature a personal budget arrived at through an ‘up-front’ allocation of money; though up front allocation to give people power is one element of SDS amongst others and therefore it would be unfair to generalise across all the resource allocation systems techniques. It was introduced as formal policy in 2008, with an original target that all service users should have a personal budget for social care by 2011.  In a recent helpful article, “Personalization of health care in England: have the wrong lessons been drawn from the personal health budget pilots?“, various well-known methodological problems with the original pilots are considered. The authors do, however, propose an extremely constructive way of moving forward, what they call “flexibility through partnership”.

Cheekily, the authors observe:

“As Gadsby points out ‘It seems that in many cases, additional resources[in the PHB group] were provided that enabled individuals to pay for extra services or one-off goods. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that overall improvements were found in wellbeing amongst budget holders’”.

Table 2

Without advocacy services, then, we really do run the danger of running a two tier service, and this is extremely dangerous, aside from the swathe of legal aid cuts. For a government which prides itself on parity, particularly for empowering new private providers to enter a liberalised market, any proposed system of personal budgets will require  the same quality and opportunity for flexibility to all user groups including those who have no recourse to advocacy. A strengthened social care system would go a long way here.

Nobody has a single right answer for personal budgets in dementia so it might not be able to have the exclusive kite mark to match. It’s clear whilst there might be excellent ways of implementing them, there are plenty of bad ways too.

Unfortunately, time is running out a bit, and political leadership and adequate funding – including for advocacy services – are now both essential.

And who will benefit? If they work well, they will shift power to the people able to make ‘correct decisions’ in care, but I feel that the whole system has to be fit-for-purpose not the budget mechanism itself. That’s where the State comes in. Who the correct advocates are, as they might not necessarily be carers including unpaid caregivers (though they might be.) Ultimately, the most offensive irony would be to make the tool that offers choice and control compulsory, but this could be expected from politicians who like to give an illusion of choice.

There are still deeply engrained issues about whether people will have enough money to meet their needs. It might be easier to hide downsizing of budgets if they’re called a yet further new name. There are obviously huge problems with merging one universal system intended to be comprehensive and free at the point of need with one which is not and means-tested; and this would not necessarily benefit the person with dementia. And at worst, the wrong type of broker, not professional advocates including social workers, could be profiting but not providing overall benefit. Introducing any transactions into a system absorbs resources, however you attempt it.

We now have to be very careful with resolution of this potentially useful policy plank – otherwise it might be a case of ‘You’ll do’, rather than ‘I do’.

you'll do

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