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Retirement Concepts, British Columbia’s largest chain of for-profit care homes, blames a shortage of workers for the problems that emerged this year at three of its facilities – difficulties that led to an extraordinary level of intervention by health authorities due to the neglect of seniors.

The pressure to fill vacancies led the facilities to hire new staff without being able to demonstrate that the workers met requirements for training, criminal-record checks, references and inoculations.

A licensing officer from the health authority reviewed 20 new staff files at the Nanaimo Seniors Village in November, and found a multitude of concerns. Only two of the 20 files contained criminal-record checks. Sixteen of the files did not contain evidence of training and registration with the relevant medical colleges. Just seven files contained character references. Eight files did not contain information about testing for the infection disease tuberculosis. And four staff files did not contain immunization information.

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Similar findings were made in April at another Retirement Concepts home, the Comox Valley Seniors Village. Like the Nanaimo care home, it is currently being run by an outside administrator appointed by the Vancouver Island Health Authority. A third Retirement Concepts home, Selkirk Seniors Village in Victoria, has staff appointed by the health authority to run one of its units. The interventions followed investigations into neglect that uncovered a litany of infractions involving residents’ health and safety.

B.C.'s job market is strong, and the provincial government acknowledges that there are challenges to fill positions in care homes in some regions of the province. In November, the Ministry of Health changed regulations to make it easier and faster for qualified health-care assistants trained elsewhere in Canada to work in British Columbia.

But Retirement Concepts is struggling more than most operators. And the main union representing workers in B.C. care homes has an explanation.

In October, the Hospital Employees’ Union presented a brief to the B.C. government to explain the employment crisis in the long-term-care sector. In that presentation, the HEU showed that some operators, including Retirement Concepts, simply are not paying enough to keep workers in a competitive job market.

“At $18.19 an hour, starting wages for care aides at Nanaimo Seniors Village had been the lowest among care homes represented by HEU in the Nanaimo-Parksville area," the handout states. "By comparison, the care aides that are being sent by the health authority to assist in the care of residents are earning $24.83 an hour.”

“The result," the union concludes, "is chronic short-staffing as care aides abandon lower-paid positions at one site for better paid employment at another.”

A shortage of workers means that residents don’t get the daily care they need. Families at the Retirement Concepts facilities on Vancouver Island had complained that basic hygiene needs were not being met, and that oversight of the delivery of medicine was lacking. Many of those allegations were substantiated by the health authority’s investigators, who found a “widespread, systemic failure on the part of the Licensee that will not be remedied by isolated responses to single contraventions.”

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For the families of residents who placed their loved ones to be cared for in these homes, their trust has been destroyed.

The provincial government pays $1.4-billion each year for beds in care homes, and in return demands that minimum standards of care are delivered.

But the province is reluctant to shut down facilities that don’t meet those standards, because it desperately needs those beds. So, instead of being overly critical of operators such as Retirement Concepts, it has added funding to pay for more services, and has expanded training opportunities to get more workers into the field.

Don Davies, the federal NDP health critic and MP for Vancouver-Kingsway, was critical of the federal government in 2017 for approving the sale of Retirement Concepts to a Beijing-based company with a murky ownership structure, calling the sale to Anbang Insurance Group a “foreign takeover of vital health-care and seniors facilities.”

Now, he says, Ottawa needs to answer for the decline in care that has emerged this year under the new ownership. “These are some of our most vulnerable citizens,” he said in an interview. “Maintaining basic standards of care is not asking too much.”

The change in ownership may not have altered the management of the 20 Retirement Concepts care homes in B.C., but vulnerable seniors are bearing the brunt of the company’s hiring struggles.

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And accountability is out of reach.

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