Essex County Council (ECC) is planning to spend more than £50,000 in order to help claw back debt from adult social care users – including those who have died from Covid-19.
The council proposes to recruit four temporary finance assistants for a period of six months to help reduce the level of adult social care (ASC) debt currently seen due to a significant high level of deaths in users of domiciliary care and care home accommodation.
Up to the week ending August 7 there were 242 deaths where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate in Essex care homes.
From February to May the adult social care debt levels increased from £38million to £42million.
ECC says that since March some debtors have been, for various reasons, either reluctant or unable to pay their bills.
Some are not used to electronic payment methods and post cheques, walk to their bank or call the council’s contact centre to make their payment over the phone.
During the lockdown many were unable to leave their homes and in addition were unable to receive visits from relatives or representatives who would have otherwise supported them to make the payment.
There has also been a significant increase in the number of deaths during April and May, with a 164 per cent associated increase in debt levels during this period compared to the same period last year.
The focus of the four temporary members of staff will be to support recovery of debts from existing service users.
But this will release more experienced permanent staff to “support families in the recovery of debts from deceased persons’ estates”.
A statement as part of a cabinet decision said: “The recruitment of temporary staff will alleviate the current increased workload within the team and provide dedicated resources to contact service users in arrears, manage the closure of accounts for deceased debtors, take phone calls, process payments and help promote electronic methods of payment which would ease the ability to pay for many in future.
“It is estimated that there will be a period of four to six weeks required to recruit and train new members of staff and therefore the positive impact will not be evident immediately.
“The costs incurred from employing the additional staff is estimated to be £55,000. With the increase of total ASC debt by £4million in three months, the bad debt provision should be reduced as a consequence of making this investment in additional resources.”
A spokesperson for Essex County Council said: “Essex County Council does not want its social care service users to accumulate debts for essential services and looks at every opportunity to support where this occurs. At the same time, the council has a responsibility to all taxpayers to recover any monies owed to it.
“Since the start of the Covid-19 response, the council’s income collection team have been monitoring the debt position even more closely and there has been a significant drop in payment levels by some of our customers.
“We have diverted existing resources to support social care users. The team is now looking to focus additional short term staff capacity to concentrate on trying to reduce escalating debt with customers. This will enable new arrears cases to be supported at an earlier stage and by putting payment plans in place, help the service users to keep debt levels manageable.
“More experienced income officers will be able to concentrate on older debt accumulation and will also be able to quickly deal with more sensitive cases, particularly in relation to families of recently deceased customers in order to reduce anxiety and stress, rather than prolonging a difficult situation.
“We continue to publicise ECC’s electronic payment methods (direct debit and automated telephone payments) and want to encourage customers to use these electronic payment methods as they are quicker, safer, easier and cheaper than posting cheques or travelling to a bank.”