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Les Leyne: Health Ministry denies blame for neglect at care homes

A lot of people with relatives in care homes will be hoping the provincial government’s stance in a lawsuit is just tactical wrangling, not health policy. As the B.C.
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Retirement Concepts' Selkirk Place in Victoria.

A lot of people with relatives in care homes will be hoping the provincial government’s stance in a lawsuit is just tactical wrangling, not health policy. As the B.C. government took over management of another Retirement Concept-owned care home this week, concern intensified about the standard of care in the company’s facilities.

Seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie released a report this month flagging a host of general problems in the contracted long-term-care field.

The most acute public example is at some Retirement Concept properties, four of which have now been effectively taken over authorities. Among the many issues facing the company is a lawsuit filed by two Victoria residents whose mother, now deceased, was in a Chilliwack facility owned by the company.

Their lawsuit alleges severe deficiencies in her care, and there are efforts to expand it into a class action suit on behalf of other families.

The government’s initial response to the statement of claim was to deny all liability, saying the company and the health authority that regulates it are more responsible for the operation of the home.

That’s standard fare in many lawsuits. But the response goes further in denying responsibility, by claiming the onus was on the family. Referring to the list of disturbing allegations about neglect, mistreatment and abuse, the government alleged negligence by the plaintiffs as a defence.

Government lawyers cited their “failure to properly inspect the facility for the aged before entering into the contract, failing to take notes of potential hazards, failing to inquire as to the training experience and competence of the staff, failing to request and check references … interview the facility … review written medical references” and assorted other lapses.

It also denies the claimed injuries were as severe as described in the suit. If the plaintiffs did suffer loss, they failed to mitigate it by not seeking prompt medical attention, said the response.

Overall, the response takes the expectations on families of residents in long-term care homes to a whole new level. It’s one that would be difficult to meet, particularly when families often don’t have much choice where incoming residents are placed.

There will be a lot more back and forth before the case ever gets to court. In the meantime, the plaintiff’s family is appealing to the seniors advocate.

Their lawyers wrote to Mackenzie this week asking for a meeting to discuss the case, which they said “aims to draw attention” to similar cases of neglect, work with government to stop such abuse and compensate those who have suffered from it.

That followed Interior Health Authority’s decision to take temporary control of a Retirement Concepts home in Summerland facility. It’s the same move that Island Health has made for facilities in Victoria, Nanaimo and Courtenay.

B.C. health authorities are now running almost a third of the company’s publicly funded beds in B.C., according to Health Minister Adrian Dix.

Retirement Concepts was purchased by China’s Anbang Insurance Group three years ago, while a high-rolling financier was running that giant firm.

It raised eyebrows, but the Canadian government gave assurances that responsible entities were watching closely.

A year later, the financier was thrown in prison for fraud. The firm was put in a form of trusteeship by Chinese insurance regulators, and has been selling off assets globally.

There are a series of holding and operating companies between Anbang and the B.C. operations that complicate the issue of who is calling the shots.

And as the attorney general’s response to the law suit shows, the B.C. government’s responsibilities aren’t clear cut either. It denies the Health Ministry is legally liable for the problems claimed in the suit, saying care homes are overseen by health authorities.

They might run homes directly, or subsidize the cost of placing an individual in one. Other times residents or families enter into private contracts for residencies.

It also disputes the basis for a class-action suit, on similar grounds.

While lawyers are keen to draw attention to the problems around neglect in care homes, the company is managing to do that quite well on its own.