France: The Orpea Scandal in Nursing Homes

A scandal regarding the care of the elderly has broken out in France with the publication of a book entitled Les Fossoyeurs (The Gravediggers), published at the end of January in France. It has brought to light the repulsive malpractices of the Orpea Group, a world leader of private nursing homes. For the Orpea group any means is considered fair game to make profit: rationing food and adult diapers, withholding care, outright mistreatment, along with minimal staffing. The book, as well as the personal testimonies that have erupted since its publication, have made clear how Orpea was able to pay its shareholders dividends ranging from 12 to 13%, much to the expense of the elderly in their care. The book, which has already been reprinted 7 times in a few days, reveals the mafia-like nature of the large capitalist groups.

The State as accomplice

Private companies managing nursing homes (known in France as Ehpads — Establishments for the Housing of Elderly Dependent People) have the support of the state: between 2002 and 2012, when the construction of Ehpads and private clinics exploded, the Orpea group benefited from the constant support of the Minister of Health, allowing it to obtain credits and permits to open. Today, the political leaders are pretending to just have discovered the problem and act indignant. What hypocrites! For years families and staff have been up in arms, denouncing the group’s methods in vain. There have been countless strikes carried out by the staff, who have denounced the mistreatment of residents as well as their working conditions and salaries. And yet, the tax-paying population collectively finances the salaries of the doctors, nurses, and 70% of those of the caregivers. There is no oversight, as inspections are rare. In addition, these nursing homes for the most part are luxury residences, where the residents pay between 6,000 and 12,000 euros per month.

The race for profit

The credo of the group is profit, pushed to its extreme. The CEO, Yves le Masne, who was fired since the scandal, to make an example of him, made 588,000 euros just before the publication of the book by selling his shares before they plummeted (from 107.80 to 33.71). He will likely be accused of insider trading.

The group also has a habit of offering to buy the silence of its detractors. It offered 4 million euros to a union that it had spied on, and the author of the The Gravediggers, Victor Castanet, was offered 15 million euros not to publish.

But this time, the group seems to be in trouble: the government has opened two investigations, one administrative, the other financial. All the nursing homes are going to be visited, and many families are filing complaints for involuntary manslaughter, or non-assistance to persons in danger. The shares lost 65% of their value.

The new CEO, Philippe Charrier, when questioned by the legislators regarding the allegations against Orpea, preferred to blame the staff. He also dismissed the accusations in The Gravediggers, responding, “When undesirable things occur, you must know that they happen in all Ehpad (nursing homes)”. What a relief to know it happens everywhere. Well, that was most likely an honest response, though not acceptable.
The scandal of course, raises the bigger question of how we support and care for the elderly in our society. It is a care that is increasingly left to private interests, as everything in life is increasingly considered a commodity to be bought and sold. In France the debate has opened up on how to treat our seniors, allowing them stay home, and not to consider them “grey gold,” a current very telling French expression attributed to businesses that involve the older population.