NHS chiefs in East Lancashire have been left facing a potential £15million bill amid controversy over who pays care home fees for the elderly.

Lawyers have besieged NHS East Lancashire and NHS Blackburn with Darwen with nearly 540 claims so far lodged over care home fees paid out by local families from 2004 to March 2011.

And the figure could rise yet further, as a second deadline approaches for similar claims at the end of March.

It follows a review which was ordered by the NHS amid concerns that families were having to foot the bill for care homes when primary care trusts should have met the costs.

NHS East Lancs is fielding 412 enquiries – which could leave them with an estimated liability of £12million.

And NHS Blackburn with Darwen is facing 127 claims, which could result in possible payouts of £2.7million.

NHS Lancashire finance director David Wharfe said in a report: “Primary care trusts nationally have experienced significant increases in claims, many of which are via solicitors.”

Mr Wharfe estimates that the total cost to the NHS in Lancashire could be up to £37million, as nearly 2,050 claims are considered.

The deadline for claims from 2004 to March 2011 closed at the end of last September. And the deadline for April 2011 to March 2012 claims will be March 31.

Victoria Motley, who works for East Lancashire solicitors Forbes, said that the majority of continuing care claims revolved around dementia patients.

“The whole issue of who pays for care for the elderly is massive – whether it is social services or the NHS,” she said.

“But in the end it is still the taxpayer who funds this and there has been an ongoing struggle between them over who is responsible.”

One of the most disturbing issues is an increasing trend in employing healthcare assistants to perform tasks usually undertaken by registered nurses, she said.

This enabled providers to downgrade it from being considered ‘nursing care’ to a lower paid discipline.

“It is incredibly important that people who may qualify receive an assessment as quickly as possible,” she added.