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An administrator was appointed to run the Comox Valley Seniors Village and the Nanaimo Seniors Village, seen here on Dec. 3, 2019, while health authority staff were sent in to run part of the Selkirk Seniors Village in Victoria.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

Health authorities have imposed outside management at a trio of senior care homes on Vancouver Island in an uncommon intervention, two years after Ottawa approved the sale of the facilities to a Beijing-based company.

Citing neglect of residents and chronic staffing shortages, the region’s medical health officer has appointed an administrator to run the Comox Valley Seniors Village and the Nanaimo Seniors Village, while health authority staff were sent in to run part of the Selkirk Seniors Village in Victoria.

All three care homes belong to the Retirement Concepts chain, the largest private provider of residential long-term care beds in British Columbia. The chain was sold to China’s Anbang Insurance Group in a deal approved by Ottawa in 2017 despite widespread concerns about how foreign ownership might affect the quality of care.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the decision to send in outside staff to oversee units within the facilities is an extraordinary move. He added that it has been five years since any care home in the province has been put under the supervision of an administrator.

“These are very unusual steps,” he said an interview. “This is urgent action that we take because of our concern for residents.”

Retirement Concepts officials could not be reached for comment about the provincial intervention.

At the time of the sale, the federal government offered assurances that care levels in the homes would be maintained. The minister who gave the sale the green light, Navdeep Bains, said “the new owners agreed to maintain at least the current levels of full-time and part-time employees at facilities operated by Retirement Concepts.”

Azim Jamal, the former owner of Retirement Concepts, also said at that time there was no reason for Canadians to be concerned. “There will be no changes to our team or our day-to-day operations.”

The Hospital Employees Union, which represents close to 2,000 workers in Retirement Concepts care homes, opposed the sale, warning that public health care services should not be controlled by offshore interests.

Jennifer Whiteside, secretary-business manager of the HEU, said the intervention was unprecedented. “It speaks to the depth of the crisis that is being experienced by the people who live in, and the people who work in, those facilities," she said.

Anbang, a holding company with a murky ownership structure, had emerged from relative obscurity to snap up companies and properties around the world. It has faced repeated questions in the United States about who actually owns the giant firm and what ties it has to the Chinese state.

Accountability became more opaque in 2018 when the Chinese government assumed control of Anbang, announcing that chairman and key shareholder Wu Xiaohui was being prosecuted for economic crimes.

Now, the Chinese government is in talks to sell, in part or in whole, its 98-per-cent stake in Dajia Insurance, the successor firm of scandal-hit insurer Anbang, according to a report by the Financial Times.

The health authority appointed an administrator to oversee the Comox Seniors Village on Sept. 30. The facility was flagged by the Vancouver Island Health Authority as “high risk" last spring.

“The categories and continuance of contraventions are occurring across multiple areas including care planning, staffing and record keeping," Charmaine Enns, medical health officer for the health authority, wrote after an investigation. “This represents a widespread, systemic failure on the part of the Licensee that will not be remedied by isolated responses to single contraventions.”

In October, the health authority announced it was sending health workers into Selkirk Place “to support the operator in providing safe, dignified care to the residents,” while a review of the facility continues.

The Nanaimo Seniors Village was put under administrative control after a Nov. 19 report by the new medical health officer, Paul Hasselback, found that significant problems emerged over the summer.

“I am of the opinion that the operator of Nanaimo Seniors Village has been either unable or unwilling to meet the minimum requirements,” he wrote.

In response to multiple complaints from families with residents in the Nanaimo facility, the investigation found the facility was in contravention of its licensing requirements mostly because of staffing shortages. The investigation also concluded that complaints ranging from neglect to physical abuse were substantiated.

Jean-Luc Ferland, a spokesman for Mr. Bains’s Innovation department, said the allegations are concerning and added the federal government would monitor commitments around the number of jobs and facilities.

Ms. Whiteside, the union secretary-business manager, is calling on Ottawa to answer for the deterioration of care that has put hundreds of elderly residents at risk. “Is that the kind of business model that we should have to provide care to frail seniors?”

Mr. Dix, who was not in office when the sale was approved, said the federal government was responsible for that decision. But, he added, staffing shortages are widespread in care facilities across the province, and his government has invested cash and increased regulation to ensure standards of care are being met.

He said when his NDP government took office in 2017, there were 75 care facilities where staffing was significantly below provincial standards, while currently there are seven.

With a report from Steven Chase.

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