Sep 27, 2012

Getting it Wrong For Seniors in British Columbia


Seniors and their families need and should have access to useful information when they are making critical decisions about residential care and throughout the period of residence in facilities. — BC Ombudsperson, The Best of Care: Getting It Right for Seniors in British Columbia (Part 1)

Mass replacement of staff can occur when facility operators switch from contracting with one private service provider to another. Such turnovers can disrupt the lives of seniors in residential care, especially those residents whose care needs are complex. — BC Ombudsperson, The Best of Care: Getting It Right for Seniors in British Columbia (Part 2), vol. 2

Consider this: The operator of your frail, elderly loved one’s publicly-funded residential care facility intends to lay off all of the unionized care staff, and contract out their work to a private company.  Many of the current staff have cared for your loved one for several years, and have acquired specialized knowledge of her complex needs.  The operator of the facility has prepared a Request for Proposals document, to be issued to potential bidders, likely within the next few months.  The operator’s sole objective is to cut costs.

Now consider this: According to the BC Ombudsperson’s report on seniors’ care (part 2), mass staff replacements disrupt continuity of care and negatively impact residents and their families.  Research has shown that contracting out is associated with inadequate training for staff and high turnover, which undermine quality of care.  Turnover of staff, in particular, has a significant impact on residents.  Research shows that residents have better health outcomes when they are able to form strong, stable connections with staff.

Now answer these questions: Would you want to know, at the earliest opportunity, about the facility operator’s intention to contract out?  Would you want to be consulted with respect to this decision, before it is made?

I’m guessing that you’d likely answer ‘yes’ to these questions.  So would I.  We want to be notified and heard when it comes to significant changes affecting the care of our loved ones.

Unfortunately, however, we can’t always get what we want.

In a recent decision resolving a dispute between the Health Employers Association of BC (HEABC) and the Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU), it was determined that a facility operator’s intention to contract out its unionized care staff can be kept secret from residents and families for several months.  The union must be notified, but it can’t tell anyone, except its members who are facing lay off.

The HEABC-HEU dispute arose in relation to a recent situation at Malaspina Gardens, a residential care facility for seniors in Nanaimo.  In early October 2011, just before the Thanksgiving weekend, the private operator of Malaspina Gardens, Chartwell Seniors Housing Real Estate Investment Trust, advised HEU that it intended to contract out at Malaspina Gardens, and that this would impact 154 HEU members working at the facility.  This notice was provided pursuant to HEU’s collective agreement with HEABC.  HEABC (which is governed, in part, by representatives of the BC government and the province’s health authorities) represents Chartwell and over 250 other publicly-funded health employers in BC.  Under the HEU-HEABC collective agreement, a health employer must provide the union with two or three months’ notice of its intention to contract out, and must consult with the union in respect of alternatives and options in relation to the contracting out.

Out of concern for Malaspina Gardens employees and residents, HEU went public regarding Chartwell’s intention to contract out.  In a news release, the union decried the fact that health care workers continue to bear the brunt of the prevailing outsourcing and privatization agenda, and lamented the associated hardships suffered by residents and their families.  Workers and residents’ families responded with concern and frustration, both of which were voiced to local media and to Chartwell.  Many in the community, including the editorial board of the Nanaimo Daily News, expressed opposition to Chartwell’s plan to contract out.

For their part, Chartwell and HEABC reacted with outrage to HEU’s news release, and HEABC filed a complaint.  It said that, under the collective agreement, HEU was required to keep Chartwell’s intention to contract out confidential until a final decision was made.  HEU vehemently disagreed, and the matter ultimately ended up being adjudicated.

In its legal submissions, the union emphasized that the idea of keeping Chartwell’s intention to contract out a secret from employees and residents was completely inconsistent with basic community standards and public expectations of openness, transparency and accountability in the provision of public health care.  The union argued that a plan to contract out at a publicly-funded seniors’ care facility is a public issue, and that residents, families, workers, and members of the community expect to be informed and consulted at the earliest opportunity.

At the end of the day, however, HEABC’s position won out.  As a result, despite the Ombudsperson’s emphasis on the importance of access to information for seniors and their families, many will be left in the dark while critical decisions are being made about their residential care.

Not exactly what you’d call “Getting It Right for Seniors in British Columbia.”


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