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West Coast Seniors Housing Management, which oversees operations on behalf of a number of Retirement Concepts facilities in B.C., blames staffing shortages across the sector for the issues at its Vancouver Island homes.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

The federal government’s assurance that patient care would be protected after the sale of British Columbia’s largest chain of seniors care homes to a Beijing-based company is an empty promise, B.C.’s Seniors Advocate says.

Isobel Mackenzie, the province’s watchdog for seniors’ issues, said Wednesday that it is not possible to determine if Retirement Concepts, which was sold with Ottawa’s approval in 2017 to China’s Anbang Insurance Group, has maintained staffing levels because of the murky way that the company bills the province for the care it provides.

In recent weeks, health authorities have imposed outside management at three Retirement Concepts facilities on Vancouver Island. The unusual intervention followed investigations into neglect of residents that has been attributed to acute staffing shortages. The investigations uncovered a litany of infractions involving patient health and safety.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said Tuesday that it has been five years since any care home in the province has been put under the supervision of an administrator.

When he approved the sale two years ago, federal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said the new owners had pledged to maintain levels of full-time and part-time employees at the facilities operated by Retirement Concepts. The sale was approved despite widespread concerns about how foreign ownership might affect the quality of care. The company has 20 care homes in B.C., one in Quebec and two in Alberta, offering a mix of private and publicly funded beds.

On Wednesday, Mr. Bains told reporters that he was concerned about the well-being of seniors in those facilities. “We’ve been up front when it comes to making sure the company respects its obligations under the Investment Canada Act. We continue to monitor that and work very closely with the provincial government.”

Mr. Bains’s department monitors the number of jobs maintained, not the quality of care, which is the responsibility of the provincial government. Under the Investment Canada Act, the department can impose remedies if the owner of the care homes fails to meet employment levels.

Ms. Mackenzie said monitoring those obligations is difficult. Health authorities pay Retirement Concepts to provide a set number of hours of patient care for each resident in a publicly funded bed, but the work is then contracted out to another agency, obscuring the paper trail. The mix of private and public beds adds another layer of complexity to assessing whether residents are getting the hours of care required for their safety and well-being.

“We do not have a robust and reliable, open and transparent process to reassure the public, the family members and the residents that the care hours that are being funded … are actually being delivered,” she said in an interview. “And we need to move towards that. The federal government, I don’t understand how they’re able to make that assurance.”

Mr. Dix said his ministry has not been involved with Ottawa in the oversight of the Retirement Concepts care homes, but welcomed Mr. Bains’s remarks on the issue.

“On the issue of ownership, that is clearly the responsibility and obligation of the federal government. And it’s clear that they didn’t see either the Anbang takeover or the subsequent events involving Anbang as worthy of their intervention," he said in an interview Tuesday.

West Coast Seniors Housing Management, which oversees operations on behalf of a number of Retirement Concepts facilities in B.C., blames staffing shortages across the sector for the issues at its Vancouver Island homes.

“Our number one priority is ensuring residents get the care they need and deserve. Unfortunately, the entire seniors care sector is currently experiencing a labour shortage which is having an impact on all service providers – a challenge that has become more significant, certainly over the past year” Jennie Deneka, chief operating officer of WCSM, said in a written statement.

The sale of Retirement Concepts was opposed by health-care unions and public-health advocates who worried that foreign ownership would weaken accountability for the delivery of care to seniors.

There were concerns, also, about the opaque ownership of Anbang, a holding company that emerged from relative obscurity to snap up companies and properties around the world. Anbang faced repeated questions in the United States about who actually owns the giant company and what ties it has to the Chinese state.

The Chinese government assumed control of Anbang in 2018, 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 company of insurer Anbang, according to a report by the Financial Times.

With a report from Tim Shufelt

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