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Renting seniors' beds is a formula for failure -- and it's time for Alberta to stop

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Do you remember that promise by the Alberta government to build 3,000 seniors' beds? It turns out they only planned to rent them!

The problem with renting beds from private companies, of course, is the same as with any form of privatized medicare: it ends up costing a heck of a lot more than we were promised, and delivering much less. 

It also turns out the Alberta government's bad bargain with private care operators means the fragile seniors who end up occupying the beds are subject to eviction!

Back in June 2010, Alberta Health Services sent out a news release that said the province-wide health agency would be working with the government to "add more than 3,000 continuing care beds over the next three years across the province as part of a strategy to increase access and care choices for seniors."

"These spaces," the release also said, "are in addition to the more than 19,500 continuing care spaces currently in Alberta."

Never mind for a moment that despite its largely fictional arm's-length relationship, AHS is in all but title a branch of the Alberta government. And regardless of who is at its head, this province's perpetual Progressive Conservative government has for years been committed to privatizing as many seniors' care beds as possible as quickly as possible.

This fact, presumably, is both as a sop to its well-heeled friends and backers in the secretive corporate nursing home industry and the sincere belief it can download the costs of this area of health care onto the elderly and their families, thereby having a better chance on delivering on the Canadian political class's irrational obsession with balanced budgets regardless of the state of the economy.

Since 2006, PC governments under various premiers have spent at least $320 million of your money on this effort to subsidize supportive living beds in private facilities. Since the accounting can be pretty murky, it's possible they’ve spent quite a bit more.

The exorbitant fees residents pay, in turn, flow directly into the pockets of private, for-profit health care corporations who are quite prepared to play with their elbows up in negotiations with residents, families, employees and the government itself.

So it has turned out that wherever the promised new seniors' beds were built, they were put in place by private operators, often with the help of large subsidies provided by taxpayers.

And notwithstanding the suggestion made in AHS’s 2010 news release that they were being added to the provincial seniors’ bed total, the ones in publicly run facilities inevitably seem to be closed almost the instant a privatized facility opened nearby. Fragile residents were then forced to move.

Just since last summer, we've seen well-run public facilities closed in the Alberta communities of Carmangay, Grande Prairie, Bashaw and Stettler, and their residents shuffled off to privatized care centres.

The minute this happens, in turn, costs to the residents go up -- often way up.

But how's this working out for the government, you wonder? Not very well, I'd say.

For one thing, cheapskate private nursing home operators will do anything they can to suppress the wages of their employees. 

In Alberta, this has resulted in employees joining unions to protect themselves. Since employees of private care facilities can legally strike in Alberta, unlike their counterparts in the more cost-effective public sector, this has resulted in a series of labour disputes that lend a sense of continual crisis to health care in this province -- the very atmosphere the Redford Government surely needs and wants to avoid.

Not only that, while the disputes can be ugly -- members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees have been locked out of a nursing home in Calgary for eight months now -- but the unionized employees have tended to be successful. 

The reason for this is pretty simple: right-wing think tanks can publish all the bogus studies they want, but the reality of the market in this province is that there's more demand than supply for these kinds of workers. This is especially true of professionals like Registered Nurses and Licensed Practical Nurses. With the average age of the population increasing, it's likely to stay that way.

Indeed, this is so obvious that it's hard not to suspect that these private companies really aren’t negotiating with their employees at all -- but are using labour disputes as a lever to pry more money out of taxpayers.

Since the levels of transparency and accountability in the private sector are in no way like those in the public sector, it's hard to say for sure if this is what's going on. Private operators feel no shame about hiding behind their supposed need to protect commercial interests to hide whatever it is that they're up to.

But it was sure hard not to wonder if something like this was going on when a Toronto-based company called Symphony Senior Living Inc. wrote AHS in late January and said it wanted to end its contract to provide supportive living beds for seniors in Red Deer.

Symphony happened to be involved at the same time in negotiations with its employees' union, and in the Jan. 21 letter made public by Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason, the company told AHS that if it had to pay the going rate for health care workers, it intended to downgrade its operations into a more-profitable residence for healthier seniors.

Accordingly, the letter said, it was giving AHS and the supportive living residents 12 months to find a new home -- in other words, handing them an eviction notice in all but name!

So when the Alberta government gave away that $320 million of our money to private companies, did these corporations have to promise to keep providing supporting living and long-term care services? We don't know, because their contracts are secret. 

Are private operators required to repay their grants if they decide to pull out to offer more profitable services for which a healthy market exists?

Can we taxpayers, who provided all this money, be assured that these private operators won't unilaterally yank these beds we built out of service whenever there's more money to be made doing something else with them?

Is this a sensible way to run seniors' care -- an activity the need for which is never going to go away as long as there are human beings living in Alberta?

The private sector, for profit-model doesn’t work for health care. We knew that already, which is why the privatizers have such a hard time getting their schemes for U.S.-style health care past voters, even when they rebrand them as "European."

What should also be obvious is that seniors' care for the very fragile elderly is a health care service. 

Seniors' care in Alberta belongs in the public sector -- which is transparent, accountable, treats residents and employees alike with decency and dignity, and delivers better services to taxpayers at a better price.

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


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