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Despite Alberta Premier Alison Redford's rhetoric, not much has changed on seniors' care

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Former Alberta premier Ed Stelmach

Does anybody remember the brouhaha in 2009 that was semi-officially designated The Trouble in Strathmore?

The trouble actually started a year earlier, in February 2008, when then premier Ed Stelmach and his Progressive Conservatives were running for election. The premier got up on his hind legs at a campaign meeting in the town half an hour east of Calgary and promised residents the government of Alberta would build 600 long-term care beds, 100 of them right there in Strathmore. There were 23 long-term care beds in the town at the time.

"We don't need any more meetings," Stelmach vowed. "It is a go."

If Stelmach had kept that election promise, he might still be premier today.

At least, if "bed blockers," who should be in long-term care beds but are stuck in acute care hospital beds, caused the Emergency Room wait time crisis that so deeply wounded Stelmach's premiership, building the promised long-term care beds would have helped defuse the problem that continues to this day. Indeed, if the Tories had been serious about doing what they promised, Wildrose MLA Guy Boutilier and Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman would most likely still both be loyal Conservatives!

Instead, the strategic brain trust behind Stelmach's ministry -- including then-health minister and tireless seniors' care privatization advocate Ron Liepert -- diverted their efforts down the cul-de-sac of privatization and misrepresentation.

A year after Stelmach made his promise, with the Conservatives safely back in office with a huge majority, Liepert announced that the health department was reviewing its capital plans, including the promised long-term care beds in Strathmore.

By then, the government was working on a deal with AgeCare, a private company founded in 1998 by two physicians named Hasmukh Patel and Kabir Jivraj. In 1996 and 1997, Jivraj was president of the Alberta Medical Association, and in 1999 and 2002 he was senior vice-president and chief medical officer of the Calgary Health Region. A few years later, according to the Sun newspapers, a numbered company he controlled would make generous contributions to both the Redford and Gary Mar Tory leadership campaigns.

Back in 2009, a story in the Calgary Herald said AgeCare confirmed it had won $4.3 million in provincial funding to build 60 designated assisted living units in Strathmore for seniors, plus $10 million to build 82 affordable housing units, about half of which will be set aside for independent seniors. Jivraj was quoted as saying he believed the projects had no connection with Stelmach's unkept 2008 election pledge.

According to the community's newspaper, however, Strathmore-Brooks MLA Arno Doerksen told townspeople at about the same time that if the partnership with AgeCare became reality, the 100 long-term care beds would not be built.

Then something unusual happened, which suggests the people in Strathmore were paying more attention than most of us here in Alberta. They figured out the deceptive game the government of Alberta habitually plays with the terminology it uses to describe seniors' care.

In the government's lexicon, "long-term care" means properly regulated, appropriately staffed, publicly funded residential health care for seniors. "Designated assisted living" means privatized hotel-style residential care in which seniors have to pay for extra baths, feeding assistance or anything beyond the basics. Some designated services may be publicly funded, but they are likely to be delivered by a personal care assistant, not a Registered Nurse. "Continuing care," means a combination of both -- inevitably heavily weighted toward private, less regulated delivery.

The deception comes into it because the government assumes that most of us, unlike the citizens of Strathmore, don't understand the differences and think we're getting long-term care when they use our tax money to subsidize private corporations to build for-profit assisted living facilities.

This was what prompted The Trouble in Strathmore, when the good people of that community began to write angry letters to the editor (who in turn wrote critical and well-informed editorials), and took part in public demonstrations that made Stelmach look like a bumbler and revealed his government's sharp practices.

As far as Stelmach is concerned, arguably, the rest is history.

One would hope the current Conservative government of Premier Alison Redford has learned from Stelmach's errors. Alas, the evidence suggests they have not.

Earlier this week, the government slipped back into its deceptive ways with an announcement in Edmonton by Seniors Minister George VanderBurg that "seniors and persons with disabilities in six Alberta communities will benefit from more than 500 new affordable supportive living and long-term care spaces."

If you read the fine print, though, you'll learn that of the 541 new spaces, only 30 are actual long-term care beds -- something that the Redford government, just like the Stelmach government, hopes you won't notice.

The way the government news release explained this was as follows: "These projects will help build 511 new affordable supportive living and 30 long-term care spaces in Calgary, Okotoks, Strathmore, Edmonton, Villeneuve and Olds, identified by Alberta Health Services as having the greatest need for additional spaces and services." Actually, and quite interestingly, it turns out that all 30 of the actual long-term care beds are located in … wait for it … Strathmore! This proves, I guess, that even in Alberta, the squeaky wheel gets a little grease!

Among the private-sector recipients of the government funds of the latest $48.2 million in public money being spent on this project, according to the government's news release? Age Care Health Services Inc. -- including $7.6 million in Strathmore for the 30 long-term care plus another 70 assisted-living beds.

Meanwhile, the number of long-term care beds in the province, approximately 14,500, has not changed since 1992. While new facilities have opened over the years, the government shuts them down as quickly as they open. The ones that close are likely to be publicly funded, publicly operated facilities, while the new ones are likely to be private, for-profit operations.

So it would seem that under Premier Redford, at least as far as seniors' care is concerned, very little has changed.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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