Town hall crowd rejects VCH plan for long-term care

Health Care

MLA Nicholas Simons is pledging to fight Vancouver Coastal Health’s (VCH) plan for the future of long-term care on the lower Sunshine Coast.

Simons made the comments at the end of a June 29 town hall meeting on the proposal to close Shorncliffe and Totem Lodge and enter into a contract with a private company building a new facility in Sechelt.

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Simons, who organized the town hall, was joined by representatives from the BC Nurses Union (BCNU), the Hospital Employees Union (HEU) and the group Canadian Doctors for Medicare.

“We need more than just 20 [new] beds in a private facility,” Simons told the crowd of more than 250 at the Seniors Activity Centre in Sechelt. “We can’t be fooled by the shiny object. This was not an announcement to resolve any of the issues that we have on the Sunshine Coast. We need the public to express themselves clearly to the government that this is an issue we’re not going to just let go by the wayside. For the benefit of our community we have to fight this,” he said.

VCH, Trellis Group (the company that will own and operate Silverstone Care Centre), and the BC Care Providers Association declined Simons’ invitation, leaving the stage to those who oppose the plan.

Kath-Ann Terrett, BCNU’s regional chair for the Coastal Mountain zone, said the news was like VCH “dropping the bomb.” 

“The new private facility that’s being built is not going to meet the needs of your community,” Terrett said. “And now they’re [VCH] using taxpayer money to fund private companies, when there are many not-for-profit available.

“Some people in the community [who work at Shorncliffe and Totem] will be forced to leave because we know the private facilities do not have the same [employment] standards and benefits that Vancouver Coastal [Health] has provided,” Terrett added, going on to point out that privately run long-term care facilities also mean hidden costs for the families of residents.

HEU assistant secretary and business manager Wendy Beer voiced similar concerns.  “What [private care] really does is diminish the care for seniors,” Beer said. “It also diminishes the working conditions for the people who are caring for those seniors.  And what is the result of that? You have lower wages, you have turnover, you have [increased] workloads. Whenever you put profit in health care, there are corners that are cut. Who pays the price for that? The seniors living in those care homes.”

Beer said the union’s previous experiences with shifts to private facilities show up to 60 per cent of staff leave their jobs, which disrupts the continuity of care. She also said in a rural community the impact is more serious.

“There’s not a lot of options for people to go work on the [Lower] Mainland and come back here every night and be with their families. So we’re talking 200 good, family-supporting jobs that are going to leave this community. They’re going to be replaced with low-paying jobs that can’t support a family. Businesses will suffer, families will suffer, potentially people will have to leave.”

Canadian Doctors for Medicare was represented by Dr. Michael Klein, who said privatization always leads to a reduction in quality of care.

“This has been studied in innumerable countries and settings and every case is always the same,” Klein told the crowd. “It’s not a secret … If you are about making a profit, you will put profit before care. The way it works with regional health authorities is very simple. If they download care to a private facility they are offloading their budget. They tell the private facility what their budget will be and they no longer have to worry about the care.”

Dozens of audience members also took turns at the mic, raising questions, concerns and, in most cases, voicing their outright rejection of the plan.

A Totem Lodge care aide, who didn’t give her name (BCNU and HEU claim workers are under a gag order from VCH) said, “I’ve also worked [in] private care, and when I’ve worked in private care I tried my best. But, I want you to know there’s one of you [care aides] for 10 people, and while you’re there you’re giving out medications, as a care aide, with a three-and-a-half-hour meds course. You’re doing laundry. You’re doing cooking. You’re doing the patient care … I’ve gotta tell you, I quit private care. I didn’t feel it was ethical what I was doing.”

Former Aramark employee Brenda Cole was caught up in the so-called “contract flip” involving cleaning staff in 2015. The new company promised to hire as many of the Aramark employees as possible. But Cole said the new company forced her out. “What does private care get you? Absolutely nothing,” she said.

Carol Murray, president of the Sunshine Coast Health-care Auxiliary, said the opportunity to help at Totem Lodge was what led her to volunteer with the Auxiliary in the first place – but that under the model VCH is going to, the Auxiliary’s involvement at Shorncliffe and Totem will end.

“The Auxiliary will not be following residents to the new Silverstone Care Centre. A not-for-profit organization, such as our Auxiliary, cannot go and give their services to a for-profit organization.”

Murray also raised the question of what will happen with equipment bought by the Auxiliary when the facilities close.

Although it wasn’t represented in person, VCH had a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) pamphlet distributed to people as they entered the meeting. It’s also now on the VCH website.

There were also several calls to action from audience members.

“We’ve got two years to try to deal with this,” said Stevo Knauff of the Sunshine Coast Labour Council. “We [the labour movement] have stopped public-private partnerships in the past. It’s going to be a big fight.”

That sentiment was echoed by a retired nurse and BCNU shop steward, who drew loud applause when she said, “I’ve been there. I wasn’t expecting to be there again, but I think we’re going to have to get out there and stomp!”

The HEU, meanwhile, has launched an online petition, addressed to Vancouver Coastal Health CEO Mary Ackenhusen. The petition reads, in part, “It’s time the health authority reversed this drive to privatize public health services for B.C.’s seniors. Moreover, Vancouver Coastal Health should respect the workers that deliver the care in Sechelt – and across the health authority – by honouring the existing contract it has with its employees, when services are transferred to a new location.”

As of July 5 there were already more than 530 signatures.

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