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Alberta hears mixing patients at long-term care facilities leading to violence

EDMONTON — The Alberta government is facing calls to stop admitting complex mental health patients into long-term care facilities until the risks are fully reviewed.
Adriana LaGrange, Minister of Health for Alberta, makes a health-care announcement in Calgary on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023. Alberta's Opposition NDP and seniors’ advocates are calling for the United Conservative Party government to quickly halt the admission of complex mental health patients into long-term care facilities until the risks are given a full review. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol

EDMONTON — The Alberta government is facing calls to stop admitting complex mental health patients into long-term care facilities until the risks are fully reviewed.

Seniors' advocates joined Opposition New Democrats at a news conference Monday in asking for the halt.

They said mixing residents at Calgary's Carewest Colonel Belcher facility with those who have vastly different needs has led to violence.

Charles Hamel, board chair for the Friends of Colonel Belcher Society, said it can no longer recommend the once top-tier facility for veterans because of unsafe conditions.

Hamel said former health minister Jason Copping recognized the risks and agreed placements should end, but Copping lost his seat in last year’s provincial election and that direction is no longer being followed.

“We have been stonewalled," said Hamel.

NDP seniors critic Lori Sigurdson said putting adults with mental health issues into continuing-care was done to reduce strain on hospitals.

She said the 175-bed Carewest Colonel Belcher currently has 58 patients, and some are high risk.

“This temporary measure has created a stressful and unsafe environment for all residents, staff and visitors,” she said.

Although there is a security guard at Carewest Colonel Belcher, Sigurdson said it's not uncommon for police to be called and residents must sometimes shelter in their rooms until situations are resolved.

The results of a freedom of information request shared by the NDP showed police were called to the Carewest Colonel Belcher 56 times between January 2022 and February 2023.

Many calls were classified as 911 hang-ups. Others were for welfare checks or in response to disturbances and mental health concerns.

Anne Sorbie said her family moved her father out of the facility in November 2022 after he was assaulted twice.

She said she fears the program that began as a temporary measure during the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be implemented in other long-term care centres, if it hasn't been already.

Lisa Johnson said her father is an army veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the program has created more stress for him as a resident.

“We have been left with no other choice but to put him on a wait-list to move him if things do not change," she said.

Alberta Health Services said in a statement that 29 beds at Carewest Colonel Belcher were converted from regular continuing care spaces to those for patients with complex needs, including mental health issues, in November 2022.

However, Johnson, Hamil and Sigurdson said the placements date back to 2021.

Speaking to reporters, Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said she's concerned by what she has heard and is asking her department to investigate.

She said there is a shortage of appropriate care spaces, but safety is a priority and that's why the province is overhauling its public health-care system. The change will see the provincial health authority, Alberta Health Services, dismantled with four new governing arms created to report to LaGrange.

Sigurdson said a review and risk assessment was promised during the trial period but never materialized.

The government did not immediately offer an estimate of how many long-term care facilities across the province have been tasked with housing complex mental health patients.

NDP mental health critic Janet Eremenko said staff at long-term care centres are not equipped or specialized to meet such diverse care needs.

“Psychiatric care is not geriatric care, and vice versa,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2024.

Lisa Johnson, The Canadian Press