UPDATE: George Derby board puts hold on contracting out 90 jobs

The board of the society that operates the George Derby Centre has announced a moratorium on the proposed contracting out of support services at the veterans care home.

"We made a mistake," said Ike Hall, president of the George Derby Care Society, in a phone interview. "We should take this fight to another level, we should not just give up."

A month ago, the centre announced it was contracting out more than 90 jobs, including housekeeping, food services, laundry, clerical and activity staff, with the cost savings earmarked for hiring more nurses and care aides.

Hall said contracting out had been presented to the board by Fraser Health Authority as the solution to their funding woes. And while it anticipated some backlash at the move, it didn't expect it to be "demonstrated to us so viscerally, so visibly."

But while it was a move cheered by family of centre residents, legion members and the Hospital Employees' Union, Hall stressed, "We're still not out of the woods yet."

He said that with the support of "rock stars" like BC NDP leader Adrian Dix and B.C. Federation of Labour head Jim Sinclair—who were both in attendance at a Saturday protest rally at the centre where Hall made his announcement—they'll continue to lobby for the increased funding the centre needs.

Hall said the funding issues have been ongoing for several years, with George Derby being bounced between Veterans Affairs Canada and the Ministry of Health with no resolution.

When Veterans Affairs passed on responsibility for the care of veterans onto the province, a deal was worked out on how that would happen, he explained. When the province wasn't living up to its side of the bargain, the society complained to Veterans Affairs who appeared to go to bat for them.

The society and the federal department met with Fraser Health about three years ago and as a result, another $1 million was provided to the centre.

But Veterans Affairs then took that money because it was earmarked for staff that the federal department was already funding, Hall said.

On top of that, Fraser Health changed its funding formula requiring the centre to provide more hours of direct patient care, which usually means more nursing staff.

"Then they said in the next breath 'but we're not giving you any extra money, you're going to have to take it out of your support staff [funding].'"

As another example of what the board is up against, Hall said Veterans Affairs will provide funding for a music therapist but the board asked if the money could be used  for a more pressing need, a physical therapist to help veterans who are having trouble getting out of their wheelchairs to use the washroom.

"They said, 'yeah that sounds reasonable.' A year and a half later they said, 'well you didn't spend the money on music therapy so we're taking it away and you spent it on the wrong thing and we're not funding that.' They double whammied us but they said it was okay at the meeting," Hall said, clearly exasperated.

"I don't know what we're supposed to do. The person wets himself in his wheelchair and we sing them a song? That doesn't seem right."

The Ministry of Health also won't fund pastoral care, so they had to let their pastor go.

"Now these are people literally in the last years of their life, last days some of them, and we can't provide pastoral services to the family, to the veterans? That's just wrong, but we don't have any pocket to take it out of."

As it is, the society has had to repeatedly dip into its reserves earmarked for capital projects to the tune of $250,000 a year for the past four years. That's $1 million with next year's deficit projected to be $800,000.

Hall said the average age of the veterans, who make up the majority of the centre's 300 residents, is 88.5 years and 90 per cent of them deal with challenges such as dementia.

He stressed that the society isn't looking for the increased funding in perpetuity.

The centre saw 178 residents die last year. Its residents are very old and many are priority veterans who have served on the battlefields of the Second World War and Korean War.

"If we can get just $1 million each of the next five years they can take all their money away. The veterans will be all gone then," Hall said.

"It's two lattes a day [per resident] and the Government of Canada can't give us that?"

Hall said there is no guarantee contracting out won't happen as it's just a moratorium to see if other solutions can be found. He admits "all we can do is hope more."

The board believes its only hope is at the political level. "We have met with bureaucrats, they can't help us. This is a political decision."

As for the Hospital Employees' Union, spokesperson Margi Blamey said the board's announcement was a surprise and "the best news that one could hope for."

The spotlight that has shone on the situation since the contracting out announcement may help a solution to be reached, she said.

"It's not a done deal but it is exactly what we wanted. We wanted the board to revisit their decision which they did ... We are going to get the people to talk to us who need to be part of this conversation."

Fraser Health spokesperson Roy Thorpe-Dorward said Monday that the health authority had not yet been official notified by George Derby of its moratorium. In any case, Fraser Health does not play a role in the contracting out process as it's up to individual facilities to decide how to operate with the funding they receive.

Thorpe-Doward confirmed the centre is providing fewer direct care hours than required and has been asked to increase that.

As for funding issues, he said Fraser Health has provided George Derby with $16.7 million for the 2012-2013 year, and the care centre has seen a 41 per cent funding increase since the 2004-2005 fiscal year.

"Looking at our funding formula and care delivery model, we believe they're funded adequately to deliver the care that's required."

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