A year ago (February 2012), the province’s Ombudsperson released a comprehensive report addressing the crisis in BC’s home and community care system, including 176 recommendations for a creating a more accessible and accountable system. The centrepiece of the provincial government’s response was the announcement that it would create an Office of the Seniors Advocate, following an extensive community consultation process.
During the ensuing consultations, seniors’ organizations and advocates made it abundantly clear that, in order to be effective, this new office needed to be independent. Meaning, it needed to be structured as an independent office of the legislature (as are the Ombudsperson, the Auditor-General, and the Representative for Children and Youth), rather than as a position within government.
Yesterday, when Bill 10, the Seniors Advocate Act was finally tabled, we were disappointed to discover that it will not be an independent office. Rather, the position will be appointed by and accountable to the government, and have status equivalent to a deputy minister. The legislation does talk about the advocate advising government in “an independent manner” and says the advocate “may report to the public, in any manner, on any matter arising from the fulfillment of the responsibilities of the Seniors Advocate under this Act.” It also says the Minister must release any reports requests/received from the advocate to the public in a timely way. But that’s not the same as being independent – bottom line, this position will serve at the will of the government of the day. The degree to which the advocate will be able to honestly and publicly assess government policy remains uncertain, and will depend on who fills the role, how willing they are to put themselves on the line, and how the government chooses to respond to their critiques.
Beyond the (central) question of independence, the legislation does set out a reasonably broad and pro-active mandate for the advocate. The scope of the position is systemic, meaning that the Advocate will have responsibilities that go well beyond advocating on behalf of individual seniors or specific cases, and will focus on identifying and analyzing “systemic challenges faced by seniors.” Rather than defined strictly as health or medical needs, seniors services are also defined broadly to include “prescribed programs, services or systems of support in relation to health care, personal care, housing, transportation or income support that are used by or associated with seniors.” The advocate is empowered to monitor the provision of seniors’ services, collaborate with service providers, and make recommendations to government. Further, the legislation says the advocate may establish an advisory council, and may engage in activities needed to fulfill its responsibilities including conducting research. These are all positives.
The scope and creation of this position is a testament to the impeccable work of BC’s Ombudsperson, whose recommendations did not specifically include the creation of a seniors advocate, but whose investigation compelled the government to acknowledge the need for greater oversight and accountability. It also reflects the collective work done by seniors’ communities, activists, and advocates across the province during the consultation process. While it is disappointing the advocate will not be independent, the broad and systemic mandate the position has been granted at least opens the door for improved transparency and leadership in the area of seniors services and care. I’d feel a lot more optimistic, however, if there were more to the government’s plans for seniors than creating this new advocate position. For example, the recent throne speech and budget contained no indication that a more integrated and accessible system of home and community-based health care is on its radar. And it has yet to implement (or announce any plans related to) the vast majority of the Ombudsperson’s recommendations.