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Issue of Erkina House raised in the Dail as Minister told ‘existing residents wish to remain there’

Erkina House Rathdowney

The ongoing issue of the future of Erkina House in Rathdowney was raised on the floor of the Dail recently.

Back in April, Deputy Brian Stanley revealed how the HSE intended to close the mental health facility that opened in 1996.

Erkina House is home to 12 residents and comes under the Mental Health Services.

The HSE swiftly apologised to those residents and their families and vowed to ‘pause’ the planned closure for a period of consultation.

Sinn Fein’s Stanley challenged Minister for Older People, Mary Butler, on the issue.

He told the Minister: “The news of the planned closure of Erkina House came as a bombshell to the 12 residents, the staff and the local community.

“The facility is entering its 26th year of successful operation. It has been accepted by the local community right from the outset. The facility has demonstrated a stand-out, best practice way of doing things. There was no consultation regarding this closure and no appraisal.

“I acknowledge the intervention of the Minister of State in this matter. She intervened quickly and wrote to me on 6 May, after I and the other two local Deputies raised this issue.

“The Minister of State acknowledged the importance of Erkina House and stated that the decision had been put on hold.

“Regarding the HSE’s rationale for this action, it cited the facility’s rural location, the issue of public transport and the building’s amenities. It was stated that some bedrooms were “small and located upstairs” and some of the shower and toilet facilities were partially inadequate. Let us deal with the matter of the location first.

“Erkina House – and I ask the Minister of State to come down and visit the facility if she is ever in Laois – is in the dead centre of a town with a population of just under 1,000. It is in the town centre and a perfect location.

“The facilities at Erkina House are excellent. There are fantastic gardens at the rear of the house. It was the old house that belonged to the nuns and it is a fine structure. There is a great deal of space around it. The post office and the shop are across the road.

“The residents of Erkina House are vulnerable people and they use all these local facilities. They go to the lovely town square, where there is seating and where they can sit and meet and talk with each other and local people.

“The residents go to a local establishment for coffee most days. That freedom is there. The newsagent’s shop is around the corner.

“The health centre at Mooreville is just around the back, which is another health facility used by the residents. The community hall, which is also the bingo hall, is just down the road. I met the residents at a meeting there recently.

“Laois-Offaly mental health services are located in Laois, not Tullamore or Offaly, to where it is planned to move people. There is a Local Link bus for public transport but, let us be fair, the people in Erkina House do not travel too far or too often.

“Public transport has not been an issue. That is a bogus argument. The key point is that they have their freedom in order to mix and walk around the town.

“Erkina House is a fine building. The whole back section was re-roofed within the past year. My information is that up to €150,000 could have been spent on it. I will not argue about that, but I will point it out to the Minister of State. There is considerable interior space.

“If one went around Erkina House with a building inspector, I am sure faults could be found. Every building has faults, including the Minister of State’s house and my own. I know health facilities have to tick all the boxes but there is considerable space in this building.

“It is a sound structure. The roof and other aspects are in good condition. Erkina House has the type of visiting rooms that Silver Lodge does not. Silver Lodge does not have the same space. Those are the facts.

“With regard to upstairs in Erkina House, there is a lift in the Houses of the Oireachtas. All buildings have lifts now. We can fit a lift into Erkina House.

“In the context of some rooms not being en suite, one can buy en suite kit and fit them into those rooms. All of that can be done. This is not rocket science. It needs a little bit of refurbishment and some other work.

“There is a plan to move residents 68 km to Arden Road in Tullamore where there are no facilities. It is on a busy road and does not have the same space. This is the key thing for these people’s mental health. They will not have the same freedom. The Mental Health Commission looked at Silver Lodge.

“It found that there is no dedicated space for therapeutic activities in the centre, nor does it have a dedicated occupational therapist. In addition, not all bathrooms are ventilated.

“The commission also found other problems with it. Silver Lodge is not the silver bullet the Minister of State is talking about. Existing and new residents need kept at Erkina House.’’

In response, Minister Butler said: “As the Deputy said, Erkina House is a high-support residence that provides a rehabilitation and recovery service for people with mental health difficulties.

“There are currently 12 residents in the house, which is situated in the village of Rathdowney, County Laois, in the Deputy’s constituency.

“The first I heard of this matter was when Deputy Stanley, the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, and Deputy Flanagan made contact with my office. The HSE was then in contact with my office on 19 April regarding the potential closure of the residence, a matter that was raised in local news.

“The HSE considers Erkina House to be unsuitable for modern mental health service provision.

“As the residents care and treatment are my priority, I have engaged with the HSE on numerous occasions since regarding this matter.

“It has agreed to place on hold the decision to transfer services from Erkina House, Rathdowney, to allow for a full option appraisal to take place. I understand the HSE contacted Deputy Stanley and other local Deputies directly on the matter.

“I ask that the Deputy clarify the position in that regard. I also ask that he clarify some issues reported in local media.

“Prior to Covid-19, residents lived in shared, dormitory-style bedrooms. At the onset of the pandemic, bed capacity was reduced from 17 to 11 and then increased to 12 in 2021.

“Emergency measures were put in place to ensure that there was only one bed per room. However, shower and toilet facilities are shared and are considered very unsuitable.

“Erkina House also has limited access to community services and public transport. At the same time, I take on board everything the Deputy said about the residents being part of the community.

“My priority, as Minister of State, is to develop our mental health services in order that those using them are provided high-quality, fit-for-purpose service.

“This includes residences that are modern and up-to-date places that offer comfort and privacy for all residents. This is an important point but I also take on board what the Deputy said about part of the building being reroofed last year. That would have been a substantial spend.

“Mental health continues to be a priority for the Government, which is fully committed to the delivery of high-quality, person-centred and recovery-oriented mental health services. The long-term strategic aim is to provide a consistent, high-quality service.

“That is what we all aspire to. Community residences provide an important step-down service to enable rehabilitation and recovery of individuals and to assist them to move towards independent community living accommodation. This aim is supported by Sharing the Vision and Sláintecare.

“The HSE recognises that Erkina House is an important service for Rathdowney and it met with the local community and politicians on 21 April to discuss the facility.

“The meeting provided all parties with the opportunity to express their concerns and present further options the HSE could consider in its appraisal process. I welcome that communication.

“The HSE has committed to the completion of a full option appraisal before a final decision is made on the future of Erkina House. It has assured me that all stakeholders, including residents and their families, will be consulted throughout the process. This appraisal is due to commence shortly.

“I will continue to liaise with the HSE to ensure the care needs and preferences of the residents remain central during the appraisal process.

“However, I have to say that I, as Minister of State, was very disappointed that these issues were in the public domain before I, families, or local representatives had been informed. Only for the contact that local representatives such as the Deputy made to my office, I would not have been aware of it.”

Deputy Stanley said that keeping Erkina House open is ‘not rocket science’.

He said: “With regard to the information on Erkina House’s closure, it had nearly happened without anyone knowing, including local Deputies and the Minister of State.

“I will deal with the line about Erkina House having limited access to community services and public transport. There is a Local Link bus. Residents do not go far. Normally, there is transport from within the facility.

“I outlined the local community services that the residents need. They need access to the local health centre and community hall.

“They need somewhere to go for a coffee, the town square, the post office where they get cigarettes, the shop and the Card Stand, which is the local newsagent.

“I acknowledge the staff and the local community. The Minister of State knows that sometimes, when we go to put in a facility such as this in a locality, we meet opposition straight away.

“That did not happen in Rathdowney. I pay tribute to the people who were involved in setting this up, including the late Kieran Phelan. He was one of Fianna Fáil’s Senators. It was a success story from the start. It is important that we acknowledge so.

“The Minister of State is correct that residents have been accommodated in single occupancy rooms since the onset of Covid.

“Yes, there is an issue in that more en suite bathrooms are needed, but the Minister of State’s office is dealing with disabled persons and housing adaptation grants every day through the local authority.

“This is not rocket science. We can do it. We are entering into a crucial period. I do not want to see somebody at a desk writing up bogus reasons as to why to close Erkina House.

“I want money spent well. I am with the Minister of State on that. I do not want to put money into black holes. Erkina House is a good investment.

“The HSE told us at the meeting that it wants four such ten- and 11-bed units in Laois and Offaly. This should be one of the. Erkina House should be and certainly is one of them.

“It is in the middle of south Laois. It is perfect and has close access to Portlaoise where all the mental health facilities are. The one thing the residents all say to me is that they feel safe in Erkina House.”

In response, Minister Butler said she will be keeping a very close eye on developments.

She said: “I thank the Deputy for his impassioned plea with regard to Erkina House. I will be keeping a very close eye on the developments.

“The Mental Health Commission visited Erkina House on 15 January 2018. It made recommendations regarding the physical environment, policy development, multidisciplinary team access, individual care planning and medication management.

“I welcome the fact that the Mental Health Commission also has an interest in the premises.

“The individual care needs of the residents of Erkina House remain at the centre of the decision-making process. That has to be remembered.

“The HSE has assured me that all stakeholders will be consulted in the appraisal process. We await the report and its outcome, but the Deputy should rest assured that I am keeping a very close eye on the situation in Erkina House in Rathdowney. I thank the Deputy for his continued interest.”

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