Reformed policy emphasises the needs for a client-centred approach and customer service, the comparability of services and the scope that clients have for making complaints.
The Consumer Ombudsman has been updating its approach to the terms of agreements relating to sheltered housing for the elderly. The update to a policy that was originally established in 2000 was needed, because legislation on the matter has been partly amended. The policy now takes account of the Finnish Service Voucher Act and the Finnish Act on Private Social Services. As a result of changes to the provisions on marketing in the Finnish Consumer Protection Act, the policy also deals with the client’s status and rights more comprehensively than before. When the new policy was being drawn up, the Consumer Ombudsman also consulted the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities and the Housing Finance and Development Centre of Finland (ARA).
Sheltered housing services are produced by local authorities, organisations and private entrepreneurs. Local authorities may have outsourcing agreements in place with private sheltered housing establishments and payment commitments to clients. A local authority may also make use of a service voucher, where the client chooses the service provider and pays an excess. Residents in the same sheltered housing establishment may be either paying the full rent or receiving assistance from the local authority.
There is a good deal of special legislation on sheltered housing in the social welfare and health care sector. The legislative jungle is moving in the direction where a resident has a right to legal protection under the Consumer Protection Act, regardless of who produces the sheltered housing service.
The policy explores the application of the Consumer Protection Act to the various forms of sheltered housing. The Act applies where there is an agreement in place between a private enterprise and a consumer. Enterprise includes a sheltered housing establishment owned by a foundation or an association. A service that is entirely public, i.e. provided by a local authority or the state, falls outside the scope of the Act.
But the border between sheltered housing falling within the scope of the Consumer Protection Act and that falling outside the scope of the Act is not entirely clear. If a local authority has an outsourcing agreement in place with a company, or the client has been granted a payment commitment to sheltered housing, the service is a public one and the Act does not apply. On the other hand, a resident may purchase separate services from a sheltered housing establishment to which the Act applies.
What is new is that users of a service voucher fall within the scope of the Act. A local authority might, however, also be responsible for a service by engaging in a quality commitment with a service provider. The local authority must make it clear to the client his position when a service voucher is being used, the voucher’s value, service provider charges and the amount of excess payable.
Client-centred approach is key
Clients normally know best their circumstances and needs. This should be taken into consideration when agreements are being made and services are being customised. An inflexible service structure and pricing schedule do not put the client’s needs first. It is also important that the client is able to receive adequate personal advice so that service needs may be planned. An agreement should also be flexible and able to be altered according to the client’s circumstances. The agreement is generally accompanied by a personalised service and care plan.
Sheltered housing normally consists of accommodation, care and various services. It is important that the services are specified in the agreement so precisely that clients know what they are paying for.
It may be the practice of a sheltered housing establishment that either residents choose the services they want or they are bundled together in service packages. A very wide range of services packaged in this way is not normally in the residents’ interests and they may end up paying for services they do not need or cannot use.
The service packages should be made flexible, taking account of the personal needs, state of health, etc. of residents. Often, for example, a security phone may be a service that a resident does not require.
Making a security phone a compulsory part of an agreement may make it unreasonable. It is also important that the agreement is flexible in nature, if, for example, there are changes to a resident’s state of health.
Pricing made clear
The Consumer Protection Act stresses the importance of clear information about charges and the services being sold. Consumers must have a genuine opportunity to compare services and select the arrangement that suits them best. The content of services should not be hidden in obscure use of language.
If a resident chooses a service package, the agreement should make clear what its precise content is. Meal, cleaning and sanitation services should be separately priced when they are not included in the basic charge or package. If there are a lot of separate charges, the resident can be given a separate price list. The agreement should also state those costs for which residents are themselves liable, e.g. medical and hospital expenses.
The right to make a complaint
Making a complaint is a client’s basic right. It should be made to the party the resident has made the agreement with, i.e. normally the service provider. The party to the agreement is also responsible for the work and products of its subcontractors. In some cases, the responsible party may also be the local authority. Clients should be informed of their rights and referred to the correct person or organisation if they wish to make a complaint. They may also be given special complaint forms to help them file their complaint.