The CEO of a French elderly care home group Orpéa has been forced to step down as two official government inquiries into the group’s operations are opened, after a new book alleges serious mistreatment.
The allegations include residents suffering from a lack of food, poorly cared-for patients, untrained and uncaring staff, and ”rationed nappies", to boost the firm’s bottom line to the detriment of patients, on whom it continued to impose high charges.
Minister for the Elderly, Brigitte Bourguignon, has announced that the group’s CEO is being changed (Philippe Charrier will replace Yves Le Masne) with immediate effect, as a result of what has been dubbed the “Scandale Orpéa” in France.
In a statement, Orpéa said: “[Mr Charrier’s] mission will guarantee…that the best practices are applied across the entire business and shed full light on the allegations made.”
Mr Charrier was today summoned to the minister’s office to answer questions, along with France company director Jean-Christophe Romersi, into the “exceptionally serious accusations”.
Orpéa is a private group that manages a chain of retirement homes and care clinics in around 20 different countries, mainly in Europe. It was founded in 1989.
Read more: How do retirement homes work in France?
The minister has also announced the opening of two administrative inquiries into the allegations.
These will be led by social affairs inspectorate the IGAS (Inspection générale des affaires sociales) and financial inspectorate the IGF (Inspection générale des finances).
Ms Bourguignon said: “This is a first, but we have to hit hard to show that we can’t just do whatever we want in this country.”
She also said that each ARS (regional health agencies les Agences Régionales de Santé) “will inspect what is going on in all the establishments in this group".
The scandal was prompted by the publication of a new book, entitled Les Fossoyeurs [The Gravediggers], by journalist Victor Castanet. The book accuses the elderly care home group of serious malpractice, with the allegations also reported in Le Parisien.
Family groups have now threatened to take the group to court collectively within weeks, “to ensure added weight against a giant,” their lawyer Sarah Saldmann said.
She said that the case would centre on allegations of "manslaughter, deliberate endangerment of life, negligent assault" and "failure to assist a person in danger".
In its defence, Orpéa has disputed the claims, and described them as “untrue, outrageous, and damaging”.
It said: “The Board of Directors has joined the new Chairman and CEO in renewing our confidence in and support for the 70,000 employees of the Orpea group, who carry out a very difficult but essential task with immense dedication.”
Mr Charrier today stated: "We are committed to transparency and total independence, and to shedding light on these events.”
"We have commissioned two outside firms to shed full light on the matter. The minister told us that she was going to carry out inspections and controls and we are very happy to have these inspections and controls.”
He added: "We already know that several accusations are unfounded. I have formal, documentary proof.”
The group said it would launch its own “independent evaluation mission”, especially into its Neuilly establishment, which was the subject of particularly strong allegations by Mr Castanet.
The home is already under preliminary investigation by the Nanterre prosecutor, in connection with an allegation of involuntary homicide in the case of one resident.
‘Nothing to hide’
Leading private nursing home union, Synerpa, commented that the sector as a whole has “nothing to hide”, and has even called for an increase in inspections into its operation.
Florence Arnaiz-Maumé, head of Synerpa, said yesterday (January 31): "This crisis highlights the need to urgently review the systems of control and evaluation of quality in nursing homes.”
She said that Synerpa would be drawing up its own "ethical charter" in response. She said that if the allegations in the book were proven, they “are reprehensible".
Separate staff strike
The scandal comes as 25 workers at the Omeris care home at Part-Dieu in Paris have gone on strike today to call for better working conditions and a rise in their salaries.
Omeris is a Lyon-based private care home group.
The strike was called by the union CGT.
Care home director Christophe Moniod said that the 72-resident care home had been “taken by surprise” by the action, when only five staff members out of a planned 20-25 turned up for work this morning.
Staff say that the number of workers compared to residents has dropped, and they allege that their pay has been frozen for three years running. Most of the staff are on SMIC (minimum wage).
Care worker and strike participant, Rachid Zaki, said: "We're going on strike reluctantly. We take care of vulnerable people, but we only have these tools to make ourselves heard. Everything we have asked for has been refused over the past four years.”
Workers say that this includes the management of human resources, an alleged refusal to negotiate on pay, and four directors coming and going since 2015.
Omeris management has said that it will consider the demands of its employees, but said that its priority was to ensure the safety of its residents while the majority of the normal staff are on strike.