New Brunswick

Investigation demanded into pilot project that cut staff at 5 special care homes

Liberal Opposition Leader Roger Melanson was visibly angry when he opened question period on Thursday demanding an explanation of how a pilot project that cut staff at five New Brunswick special care homes was allowed by the Higgs government.

Question period erupts as Opposition Leader Roger Melanson asks Higgs government to explain secret deal

Opposition Leader Roger Melanson said New Brunswickers had better "get ready" for cuts to health care, arguing that if Dorothy Shephard allowed special care homes to cut staff when she was social development minister, there's no telling what she will do as health minister. (CBC)

Liberal Opposition Leader Roger Melanson was visibly angry when he opened question period on Thursday demanding an explanation of how a pilot project that cut staff at five New Brunswick special care homes was allowed by the Higgs government.

"Why is this government not being open and transparent and telling New Brunswickers why they're making these types of decisions behind closed doors and putting at risk our most vulnerable?"

A CBC News investigation found that the government made a deal with the Lokia Group – which owns Manoir de la Vallée in Atholville, Manoir Brise de l'Oasis and Manoir Oasis de la Baie in Bathurst, Manoir Sugarloaf in Campbellton and Manoir Sunrise in Dalhousie – in the spring of 2019.

Under the pilot project, special care home management was exempt from following staff ratios which are regulated by the Department of Social Development.

In some level one and two homes, which are required to have three staff under government regulations for every 18 residents, there was just one caregiver. In dementia and Alzheimer's units, where six caregivers are required for every 18 residents, staffing was cut to three.

Melanson said Bruce Fitch, the minister of social development, was "walking on quicksand" in his defence of the pilot project.

Former employees of the Lokia Group, which owns five special care homes in northern New Brunswick, say the government approved a pilot program that exempted the homes from adhering to staff ratios as regulated by the Department of Social Development. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Fitch said it was a deal with the Lokia Group to "try and improve the efficiency in delivering care to the seniors in the province."

The pilot project has now been cancelled, mostly because of COVID-19 according to Fitch, who pointed out that residents in long-term care homes in New Brunswick have fared much better than those in other parts of the country.

"My father passed because he had Alzheimer's and he needed extra care," Melanson said.

"And this government decides secretly to reduce the level of services for the most vulnerable of society, and the minister brings us an answer like that."

Melanson warned New Brunswickers to expect cuts to health care under Dorothy Shephard, who was the social development minister when the pilot program was approved and is now the minister of health.

"Get ready. You're going to lose a whole whack of services in health care." 

'It's shameful'

Guy Arseneault, the Liberal MLA for the riding of Campbellton-Dalhousie, said he had no idea about the pilot project happening at homes in his region.

"To tell you the truth, I was disgusted. It's shameful what happened here in this province."

Arseneault said the Higgs government, and specifically the Department of Social Development, used the special care homes and the residents "as laboratories and guinea pigs."

Campbellton-Dalhousie MLA Guy Arseneault said he was upset to learn about the pilot project, which he knew nothing about even though the special care homes involved are in his region. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Cecile Cassista, executive director of the Coalition for Seniors and Nursing Home Residents Rights, is calling on the Higgs government to make sure there are no other pilot projects happening at other special care homes.

"The government acted irresponsibly … by choosing to give breaks to private-care facilities over the care of the elderly. Profits before care is what it amounts to."

Call for investigation

Green party leader David Coon wants an investigation launched into the pilot project.

Green Leader David Coon was appalled when he heard about the pilot project granted to special care homes owned by Lokia. He is calling for an investigation by a legislative committee. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

He said allowing special care homes to reduce care by cutting staff "makes absolutely no sense."

"The consequences from the stories that we're told by the workers were dreadful, with the inability to keep people's rooms clean and and the inability to provide proper regular bathing. It sounds like the workers were just run off their feet trying to do absolutely the best for the residents without having the time to be able to do so in this pilot project."

Coon said that in the long-term care sector, the emphasis has to be on caring for the vulnerable, not on making profits.

He is calling for a legislative committee to bring government officials, Lokia managers, employees and families together to get to the bottom of what led to the pilot project.

"That's what should happen so that we get a full, transparent investigation carried out by members of the Legislative Assembly through a committee. And the recommendations can flow from that," Coon said.

In an interview on CBC's Power and Politics Thursday night, Premier Blaine Higgs was asked if he now regrets the pilot project.

Higgs acknowledged it has come under criticism, but said he is always looking for ways to better understand service levels.

"I'm never afraid to look," he said.  

Higgs said the government has to work with special care home operators "who can suggest ways to meet future challenges," and cautioned against assuming more money and more funding is the answer.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for more than 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please email: vanessa.blanch@cbc.ca

With files from Jacques Poitras

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