It was nearly 40 years ago that Pamela Bloomer’s parents fought tooth and nail to keep a Calgary hospital for the disabled that had been slated for demolition as a government-run facility.
Now, all these years later, Bloomer says it feels as though she’s fighting in her parents’ footsteps.
Bloomer is worried about a move by the provincial government to explore privatizing certain residential and personal care services, which she believes could put her sister in peril.
In their parents’ day, the Baker Centre had transitioned from a sanatorium for soldiers returning from the Second World War with tuberculosis into a hospital for the disabled. But the building, which had been in operation since the 1920s, was set to be torn down.
The plan was to move residents to different facilities throughout the province, which would be operated by charitable groups. There were concerns people would end up in highly institutionalized hospitals that wouldn’t properly meet their needs. The advocacy of the Baker Centre Parents Association was a success and the government eventually demolished the old building and built a residence and group homes on the site.
“When our parents fought and won and got these group homes built. They breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that this was going to be a forever home (for their daughter),” Bloomer said. “It’s just really distressing to be fighting this battle again.”
For the past four decades, Bloomer’s sister, Merilee Locken, has lived at the The Graduated Supports assisted-living facility in Calgary also known as the Scenic Bow group homes, next to the former Baker Centre.
Merilee Locken has cerebral palsy. She is non-verbal, wheelchair-bound and completely dependent on staff for basic life functions such as eating.
On June 10, the government of Alberta sent an email to guardians that said the Community and Social Services ministry was exploring alternative “service delivery models” for people with developmental disabilities who receive care at government-operated and staffed facilities.
The government said it is looking at contracting some services that are currently provided by provincial government employees. The change would also affect children who receive long-term care through the province’s Family Support for Children with Disabilities (FSCD) program.
Bloomer says the idea of the government even considering privatizing services for disabled Albertans in the middle of a pandemic is appalling.
She’s particularly concerned about the change, especially in light of a recent report that revealed COVID-19 deaths were four times more likely at for-profit nursing homes compared to publicly-run homes in Ontario.
“I think it’s heartless,” Bloomer added. “Because you’re picking on low-hanging fruit — the most vulnerable in society. And they’re hoping the family members and guardians aren’t going to complain, and I just find that totally despicable.”
“We know what’s happening in the long-term-care homes,” Bloomer said. “And that’s what we’re afraid of. If we get a private-care provider, it’s going to disintegrate to the same horrible conditions that we find in long-term care homes.
Bloomer said she worries that contracting out service delivery to private organizations will result in a “significant drop” in the quality of care for her sister, because she said it’s unlikely these facilities will be able to retain staff for as long because union jobs provide better wages and benefits. She also believes for-profit operators are more likely to make cuts to save money.
“The (current) staff are like family to her because some of them have known (clients) for years,” Bloomer said. “The staff know their moods, their personalities, their nonverbal language.”
She said she also believes the guardians and families haven’t been consulted enough on the change.
No changes have been made yet as the government is in the midst of a 90-day consultation period with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Rajan Sawhney, Alberta’s minister of community and social services, said most service delivery for disabled Albertans (about 90 per cent) is already contracted out to community-based organizations.
“We are exploring whether services in Edmonton and Calgary should be aligned with the service model used throughout the rest of the province,” said Diane Carter, press secretary for the minister.
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“This consultation is regarding how services are delivered, not who will pay for them. … All who are currently receiving services will continue to be cared for and services will be paid for by government.”
In addition to the Graduated Supports program in Calgary, the government is looking at transitioning services for Residential and Support Services in the Edmonton Region and FSCD services provided at the Rosecrest and Hardisty homes in Edmonton.
Marie Renaud, an opposition MLA for St. Albert who spent much of her life working in the disability supports sector, said that while it’s true 90 per cent of service delivery is contracted out, the remaining 10 per cent of clients are the province’s most “medically fragile” people.
She said in her experience, privatized facilities have a much higher staff turnover and the workers don’t always get a proper grasp of clients’ complex needs.
She’s particularly concerned about Rosecrest Home, which provides residential services for disabled children with complex medical needs.
“It’s children in there that are medically fragile and just profoundly disabled. … I’m worried about the adults, but I’m really frightened about the children,” Renaud said, noting these facilities play an important role in keeping children out of hospitals and providing them some stability in their lives.
“Right now, during a pandemic, I would say absolutely this is not the right time to explore adding risks into the lives of these children and adults.”
A spokesperson for the minister of community and social services did not answer a question about how much the government would save by contracting out the services. A member of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said they believe the government will save about $ 3.48 million annually, which amounts to a 18 per cent cut over current operations.
The latest move comes after the UCP government was previously accused of targeting the province’s most vulnerable when it stopped tying disability benefits to inflation, cut funding to the Calgary Homeless Foundation and reduced the age of eligibility for financial benefits for former youth in care from 24 to 22.
Renaud said it doesn’t make sense to potentially put people at risk for a “small amount of money.”
“This is really about money. I mean, the worst part is they’ve certainly given the notice to the unions and the families and guardians, but they’ve said nothing about what a consultation process would look like. And so people are rightly frightened.”
The government is expected to make a decision in September.