The Traffic in Seniors: Should Seniors in Residential Care be Traded as Commodities?

May 12 2018

Amidst the euphoria that has greeted recent announcements of improvements in health care by the B.C. NDP government, a major blind spot remains: a refusal to stop or at least slow down the privatization of seniors care in B.C.

Among many examples of the ongoing trend to hand over the care of B.C.’s most fragile seniors to the free market is the situation confronting seniors living on the Sunshine Coast of B.C.

Seniors groups on the Sunshine Coast have been protesting the plan of the previous B.C. Liberal government to replace two publicly owned long-term care residences in Sechelt with a single privately built and operated long-term care residence for more than two years.

The contract to build and operate the new private long-term care facility was awarded in 2016 to a private company, Trellis Seniors Services. It was done without public consultation by Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, the arm of the government responsible for the delivery of public health care on the Sunshine Coast, according to the local media and concerned seniors living on the Sunshine Coast.

Health authorities implement the health policies of the government in power. In 2017, the NDP became the government in power in BC. The new NDP government has begun to implement health policies changes, many of which benefit seniors, and has appointed three new members to the Board of the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority to help to ensure the implentation of the new policies.

Sunshine Coast seniors groups are demanding with increasing urgency that the contract with the private company, Trellis Seniors Services, be cancelled and a publicly owned and operated facility built instead.

Trellis Seniors Services is described by one local newspaper, Coast Clarion, on January 14, 2018, as being part of “a web of companies with different names” operating private long-term care facilities in B.C.

TheCoast Clarionalso notes that the principal of Trellis Seniors Services, Mary MacDougall, had a long and close relationship with the former B.C. Liberal government and that she acted as a member of the Liberal government board that vetted individuals for coveted political appointments to commissions, councils, boards, and authorities. Mary McDougall is also the former Chief Operating Officer of Retirement Concepts, a chain of long-term care facilities in B.C.

Retirement Concepts was traded twice in recent years. The second time, in 2017, it was traded to Anbang, a large China-based insurance company with a murky history. Anbang has since been taken over by the Chinese government. The fate of the seniors’ facilities in B.C. now owned by the Chinese government, is unclear. What is clear is that fragile seniors who need extensive care become pawns in these transactions.

Since the cost of providing care for seniors in long term care is covered by the provincial government which pays a fixed amount per resident to the operator, it is a prized source of guaranteed income for investors. Indeed, Trellis has announced that it is planning to build more private long-term care homes in B.C.

Hopes were high that the new NDP government would reject the privatization agenda that seemed to increasingly permeate seniors care and that it would cancel the contract with Trellis.

However, when NDP Health Minister Adrian Dix and NDP MLA Nicholas Simons met with local groups on Monday, 20 March, 2018 in Sechelt, to discuss the issue, the groups were stunned to learn from Minister Dix that despite NDP support for their cause prior to the election, he was now refusing to cancel the contract with Trellis and would not commit to ensuring that the new facility would be publicly owned as before.

According to the March 20 Coast Reporternewspaper and members of the local groups, Minister Dix was unapologetic and said: “I am proud” of the decision. He also said that he was involved with Trellis in negotiating with First Nations for land on which Trellis Senior Services could build the new private Sunshine Coast facility. Minister Dix further argued that the contract with Trellis was ”perfectly legal” and could not be cancelled.

However, the cancellation of the Liberal “legacy” bridge in 2017 to replace the Massey Tunnel, immediately after the NDP election win, shows that when there is a will there is very clearly a way. B.C. had already spent at least $70 million (according to a B.C. Hydro estimate mentioned in the October 30 Vancouver Sun) preparing access roads, moving hydro lines and putting other infrastructure in place. In Sechelt there is not even a hole in the ground for the proposed new building.

A member of the audience at the March 20 meeting called this action an example of privatization by stealth. In a recent phone call with the National Pensioners Federation, he said that he felt “betrayed.” He said that their MLA Nicholas Simons had supported the community opposition to the plan prior to the election but now, only a few months later, was opposed to it. He said that he had voted NDP for 50 years and worked in many elections to help the NDP get elected but would do so no more.

This situation on the Sunshine Coast raises an important question for all seniors in B.C: Is the publicly-paid provision of health care for B.C.’s frailest seniors going to continue to be turned over to private operators that can buy and sell these facilities complete with occupants?

From the Sunshine Coast groups’ experience we can conclude that:

1) The decision by the current B.C. Minister of Health in favour of a privately built and operated corporation (replacing two publicly owned facilities) ignores the evidence that the quality of care in for-profit seniors’ long-term care is inferior to publicly owned care and that these residences can be traded among large corporations based in other countries;

2). The privatization of seniors’ health care services and thus unequal access to quality care for seniors that was practiced by the former B.C. Liberal government is being continued by the new BC NDP government;

3) The community does not have to be consulted by B.C. health authorities about the privatization of long-term care;

4) The voices of many concerned seniors living on the B.C. Sunshine Coast are being ignored.

There is a larger question that needs to be considered: Is the out-of-hospital, out-of-home care of fragile seniors in facilities considered a necessary part of a publicly funded, publicly accountable, quality health care system or not? How has it come about that our oldest citizens can now to be traded as commodities that earn profits for big corporations?

Kathleen Jamieson,

Chair, National Pensioners Federation Health Portfolio