Photo credits: Matthias Zomer

Operating in the field of healthcare and homes for the elderly, the Orpea group is the target of two investigations ordered by the French government.

A leading global player in its sector, Orpea runs a network of 1,156 establishments offering more than 100,000 beds in 23 countries, mainly in Europe. In France, the Group owns more than 200 nursing homes for dependent elderly people, known under the acronym EHPAD (établissement d’hébergement pour personnes âgées dépendantes). Orpea’s management methods have been the subject of regular scandals in France since 2014.

The latest scandal was revealed by journalist Victor Castanet in a book entitled Les fossoyeurs (The gravediggers) published a week earlier. In an investigation based on 250 testimonies, he exposes the system developed by Orpea to maximise its profits and the dividends paid to its shareholders — a complex strategy based on drastic cost cutting and the maximum use of public funding. On top of the prohibitive rates charged, he reveals a range of abusive practices directly impacting the quality of care for residents and employee working conditions: systemic shortages of care staff, a ban on replacing absent staff, and the rationing of food and healthcare products The journalist was even offered 15 million euros not to publish his work.

As a result of these revelations, ORPEA is now the subject of a twofold — administrative and financial — investigation announced this Tuesday by Minister for Autonomy Brigitte Bourguignon. Entrusted to the General Inspectorate of Social Affairs (IGAS) and the General Inspectorate of Finance (IGF), these investigations may give rise to legal action. The supervisory authorities have the power to impose administrative sanctions, ranging from injunctions to remedy breaches to a permanent stop of operations. 'But charges under Article 40 of the Criminal Procedure Code are also possible for the most serious cases, when mistreatment is found to have occurred or when the health and safety of residents are threatened', stated Brigitte Bourguignon. In Belgium, the Group is also facing similar charges. Certain homes have been placed under enhanced surveillance, while others are subject to unannounced inspections, one of which resulted in a highly concerning report according to the Walloon Minister of Health.

At the same time, several families are expected to file charges in the coming days, swelling the number of cases against ORPEA, already the subject of charges concerning the deaths of elderly residents during the first lockdown. These facts relate to manslaughter, not rendering assistance to persons in danger or endangering the life of others. Sarah Saldmann, a lawyer at the Paris bar, intends to bundle the charges and is considering filing a class action suit by March.

Several trade unions have indicated that they too intend to take legal action. In addition to the disastrous working conditions of employees, Victor Castanet’s book mentions attempts to oust the traditional unions in favour of an in-house union called Arc-en-ciel ('Rainbow'). The Union fédérale de la santé privée (UFSP), the union representing workers in the private healthcare sector, is warning of union repression at the expense of employees: 'At a time when the shortage of healthcare staff is being felt throughout France and Europe, Orpea allows itself the luxury of firing workers who demand the resources to perform their work'. The UFSP calls for 'all disciplinary procedures underway against employees to be suspended' and for 'the latest group-wide worker elections to be annulled'.

Jan Willem Goudriaan, General Secretary of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), is calling for an extension of the investigations to other EU Member States. Representing thousands of Orpea employees throughout Europe, EPSU affiliates have collected testimonies similar to those described in Castanet’s book. 'We expect the European care strategy — to be presented by the European Commission at the end of the year — to emphasise that care is a right, that care workers deserve good wages and working conditions, that there are enough workers to provide quality care, and that privatisation and profit have no place in this sector,' concluded Jan Willem Goudriaan.

Finally, insider trading proceedings could be initiated against the Group’s former CEO, who was dismissed following the investigation. According to the French weekly satirical newspaper, Le Canard enchaîné, Yves Le Masne sold nearly €600,000 worth of shares last July, three weeks after learning that the book was being compiled. 'These decisions have nothing to do with Mr. Castanet’s book Les Fossoyeurs, which did not create any particular worries for us,' he stated.

Recently appointed, the Group’s new CEO Philippe Charrier has claimed to have 'formal, documentary proof' that certain accusations reported by Victor Castanet 'are unfounded'.