Another payments fiasco for Northamptonshire County Council as it overpays care providers by millions

Care providers have been overpaid by millions this financial year by Northamptonshire County Council and in some instances the authority has continued to pay for care even after the person had died.

Auditors have found issues across all areas of the county council's handling of care packages.
Auditors have found issues across all areas of the county council's handling of care packages.

Lack of management sign-off for care packages, failing to invoice customers for top-ups to more expensive packages and not invoicing care homes to reclaim when an overpayment was found, were all discovered in an audit carried out in November on request of the authority’s executive director of adults, community and wellbeing Anna Earnshaw, who has responsibility for the service.

Between April and November auditors found that the authority had overpaid providers by £3.4m and in the main had not been making efforts to reclaim the money.

This unnecessary loss of millions of council funds comes at a time when the authority has cut bus service subsidies because it could not afford to run them and is also planning to hand over the running of the majority of its libraries to community groups for cost reasons.

The service has been given the second lowest rating of limited assurance and auditors have put a series of recommendations in place.

The audit report said: “Financial pressures exist within adult social care and are predominantly driven by increased pressure on demand-led care budgets. Faced with such pressures and spend of over £150 million per annum, it is critical that effective systems /controls are in place over such spend.”

The audit looked at every aspect of the system from initial assessment of a customer’s care needs, through to manager sign-off, work of brokerage teams to secure a care home setting and the invoicing carried out by LGSS, the service the council shares with Cambridgeshire and Milton Keynes.

It found that the authority did not have a robust system in place to identify when a person in a care home had died.

The report said: “Other than the death list, the council does not have a defined process for identifying when care packages have come to an end. While some of this may be picked up by the brokerage team if an alternative care package has been organised, the council relies on third parties (i.e. family, care provider) to notify us of the change. Given that once the payment is set up, ongoing payments are made automatically, there is an inherent risk that the council overpays for care packages.”

The audit found that while the authority had a mechanism in place to recover overpayments it was not being done properly.

The report says: “At the time of the audit, we identified £1m worth of overpayments with a held status. When this was followed with the LGSS MAP Team, there was no clear understanding of the scale of the issue or evidence of appropriate action being taken to recover monies owed.”

A spreadsheet review also found that £1.6m worth of invoices for overpayments had not been issued. This included £900,000 overpaid to 171 residential and nursing home providers.

Another area of concern for the audit team was the top-up system. People can choose to have a more expensive package and then pay for this additional cost themselves.

But again auditors found that the system was not being administered properly.

They said: “Our review found that some clients were not being charged for this contribution and no action being taken when payments have not been received.”

On a sample of 20 top-up agreements, invoices were raised in five instances only after being highlighted by auditors.

The audit did find that independent of its work the council, which appointed new chief executive Theresa Grant in August, had brought in some measures to improve the systems, such as panel meetings to oversee budget allocations and also amending the way it administers top-up fees.

Leader of the Liberal Democrats at Northamptonshire County Council Chris Stanbra said he was shocked by the findings.

He said: “There appears to have been a lack of procedures and controls and the county council appears to have been let down by LGSS, which is not good. Anna Earnshaw deserves credit for asking for the review but if they were aware of the problem why did they not act sooner?”

The audit’s publication follows news that the county council has for the past 18 months mishandled payments to early years providers and currently owes thousands of pounds to many. It also says that it has overpaid some providers.

The authority’s overview and scrutiny committee will be looking at the issue at a meeting on Wednesday.(Mar 6)