Friday, July 30, 2010
I met with three families recently who are frightened by the rumours they’re hearing about the group homes where some of their family members live. They’re not alone.
Back when B.C. was closing the big institutions like Woodlands and Glendale in the 1980s and 90s, group homes housing four to six people were touted as the way of the future for people with severe mental handicaps, and money-savers to boot.
But that was then. Now, the government is back looking for more savings. The group homes that families believed would always be there have suddenly become the focus for budget cuts at Community Living B.C., the five-year-old Crown agency charged with overseeing housing and support services for adults with developmental disabilities.
A shift away from group homes isn’t necessarily a bad thing if well-handled, at least not for residents with the potential to thrive in more independent housing. More than 2,700 CLBC clients already live outside of the group-home system in B.C., in foster- style arrangements known as “home shares.”
Ellen Tarshis - whose agency Community Living Victoria runs home shares as well as 15 of the region’s group homes - says the world is a changed place for the current generation of people with developmental disabilities, who have benefited from changed thinking and practises that let them participate in ways that previous generations never could. Many don’t need or want the intensive level of support and supervision provided in group homes.
But a group-home closure is a terrifying prospect for families like the ones I talked to, and not only because they’ve been shut out of the process so thoroughly that all they’ve got to go on are rumours and innuendo.
They’ve got stories to tell - about the bad things that can happen to vulnerable people in a poorly monitored home-share, about the years of troubled behaviour and poor health that finally ended when their loved one found a well-run, stable group home, about all the assurances that their family member would never have to move again . But they can’t find a receptive ear anywhere.
New Democrat MLA Nicholas Simons says group-home residents are in the process of being ranked by CLBC - in many cases without the knowledge of families or advocates - according to their level of disability. A dollar value is attached to each ranking representing how much CLBC is prepared to spend on people with that level of disability. Those who score below the level needed to keep their place in a group home will be moved.
Not that anyone is actually saying that out loud. According to CLBC communications, some group homes may close in coming years due to an aging population and people choosing “more person-centred and inclusive residential choices.” And some savings may be achieved down the line through service redesigns that embrace “more person-centred and cost-effective approaches.”
The reality is a little more pressing. CLBC and the mix of private and not-for-profit agencies that operate group homes have already struck a deal to identify residents who can be moved out. Plans are well underway.
So on the one hand, you’ve got Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman and CLBC chief Rick Mowles on record that nobody will be forced from group homes against their will. On the other, you’ve got families, advocates and residents who are completely in the dark about any of it, and unable to access even basic information about the redesign plans or the status of a specific group home.
“Families have been relegated to the role of bystander in one of the most important decisions of their lives,” says Simons, fresh from a successful fight in his Powell River-Sunshine Coast riding that prevented the closure of a local group home.
If a more independent style of housing gives people a richer life and saves money at the same time, then it’s an idea whose time has come.
But the government’s stated motives look just a little suspect considering the process is unfolding with no attempt to include those most affected by the changes.
Community supports and day programs are also being cut at the same time. Does that sound like something you’d do if you were genuinely committed to a better quality of life for people with developmental disabilities?
“Done properly, I think many people can lead even better lives than they are right now,” says Tarshis of home-sharing. Her agency is one of seven in the region already doing that work.
“But have I lost sleep over this? Yes, I have. There are things that I worry about.”
Thursday, July 29, 2010
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Friday, July 23, 2010
MLAs' tax-free meal allowance tip of the iceberg
Ida Chong is the one we’ve all been talking about, but this meal-allowance business is much bigger than the $6,000 per-diem Chong claimed in the last fiscal year.
I can feel it in the public reaction. Like me, people see the Chong story as symbolizing much more than just one politician’s per-diem spending.
There’s real outrage and betrayal in the letters to the editor and on the radio call-in shows. Genuine hurt. It’s a shame that MLAs have reacted by circling the wagons and closing ranks, because this is an important moment to try to understand.
I’ve been surprised at my own wounded reaction, especially after learning this week that MLAs don’t even have to submit receipts for the $61 per diem they’re eligible for when doing official government work in Victoria or Vancouver. (“It costs more to administer the receipting process than to just set a flat rate,” said a communications spokesman with the Finance Ministry.)
Call me naive, but I had no idea.
Sure, I’m all for reimbursing our hard-working MLAs for legitimate expenses they incur. I know they’re putting in long hours and sacrificing family time, and all those other things that hard-working people everywhere can relate to.
But just handing them a wad of cash so they can eat, park and sleep at the taxpayers’ expense raises questions for me, and not just in an eye-rolling, cynical-about-politics kind of way. Before government started cutting vital public services last year, did anybody even consider steps to reduce these kinds of expenditures?
I browsed the government Web site for more information on the Capital City allowance that landed Chong in the news, and quickly found myself in a labyrinth of per-diems and meeting payments I hadn’t known existed.
The same arrangement that MLAs have is available to certain classes of civil servants. They get $47 a day, and $61 if their work on a particular day involves hanging out with an MLA or senior bureaucrats getting the higher rate.
Whether anyone actually spends the money on food is entirely up to them. It’s really just a non-taxable bonus on top of a (generous) salary.
The thousands of non-government people who sit on the province’s many advisory boards, tribunals and review panels can also claim meal per-diems. But I doubt many of them bother, seeing as the real money is in attending meetings, most of which pay from $350 to $750 per meeting.
I can’t tell you what all the costs would add up to, because nothing is gathered in one place. I sense from the government’s own slow response to my query for more information on this subject that they’d be hard-pressed to tell you, either.
But clearly it’s a potful.
Consider this one small example: We paid almost $800,000 in the last fiscal year for 268 British Columbians to attend meetings of B.C.’s 75 Property Assessment Review panels. Some panel appointees made as much as $10,000 from the meetings, held Feb. 1 to March 15 every year for unhappy homeowners wanting to appeal their provincial assessments.
And that’s just one small for-instance. Land yourself on any of the big government-appointed boards in B.C. and you’ll get $750 every time you go to a meeting.
That’s the price of doing business, some would argue. But during a recession like this one, no stone should go unturned when government is looking for savings.
Were these expenses scrutinized and considered for reduction? Were MLAs approached to reduce their own claims on public money?
One less meeting of Property Assessment Review panels would save a bundle - maybe even enough to spare a high-school-upgrade program for young moms. MLAs who were conscious of their spending and claimed only for what they spent could have made a real impact on community services that have now been lost.
Government has felt the pain of the recession, of course. Travel spending was cut in half in the past year, to $39 million, and office expenses were cut by a third. It’s been hard times for civil servants working in ministries singled out for layoffs, and for staff and clients of increasingly starved public services.
But the per-diem claims suggest that at the political level, it was business as usual. The MLAs took what the rules allowed them to take. The paid meetings continued unabated. A typical front-line community worker would have to work more than five days to earn what some people get paid just for a half-day meeting.
It’s a grave betrayal of the public trust, and profoundly unsettling for what it reveals about how our government views us. Serfs, let ‘em hear you roar.
Monday, July 19, 2010
Friday, July 16, 2010
Chong's food bill tough to swallow
Tough economic times are a particularly sensitive time to be learning that our political leaders think belt-tightening doesn’t apply to them.
Admittedly, news of elected officials pushing the limits on how much of the public dollar they’re spending on themselves is unsettling at the best of times.
But when a province is in the midst of wiping out services and supports for people who really, really need them, it is truly offensive to hear about things like Ida Chong making full use of her publicly funded meal plan.
We paid for $6,000 worth of restaurant eating for the Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA last year. Chong was within her rights to claim it, mind you; legislature rules allow even local MLAs to charge up to $61 a day for restaurant meals while on the job in Victoria.
But would you do it? If services and supports were crashing all around you during a terrible economic year and it was your job to set things right, would you feel comfortable claiming $6,000 in restaurant tabs?
Not to put too dramatic a point on it, but little children suffered in B.C. so that Ida Chong could avoid packing a bagged lunch.
Her restaurant bill was equivalent to almost five months of full-time work for somebody earning minimum wage, which pays per eight-hour day roughly what MLAs are eligible to claim for a day’s eating. You could subsidize daycare for three school-age kids for a year on the public money Chong spent in restaurants in 2009.
What mental health and addiction programs lost funding while Chong and our other MLAs dined out? How many long-standing community services closed their doors so our provincial politicians wouldn’t have to feel the pinch in their own work lives?
Chong is simply the latest politician to have caught the media’s fleeting eye. She isn’t the first and won’t be the last who has taken what was on offer as a right.
But she certainly owes more of an explanation to her constituents than just her comments this week defending her level of spending due to “no meals or things like that provided for” in much of the work she does for government.
Out here in the real world, there aren’t many meals provided, either. We mostly have to pay our own way. I doubt many of us spend anything like $61 a day on restaurant food, probably because spending money like that becomes a lot less appealing when it comes out of your own wallet.
Why did Chong choose to spend so much when she knew full well that so many services her government funded were being sacrificed? I hope she’s reflecting on that right now. But I also wonder why the premier didn’t just put expense rules like that on hold in the first place, when it became clear that B.C. needed to buckle down.
Not every politician dined out to excess, of course. Saanich-Gulf Islands MLA Murray Coell, spent a comparatively modest $1,321 on restaurant meals last year. And it goes without saying that being a politician is hard work, requiring frequent travel and quite a lot of restaurant dining.
But if Gordon Campbell is the leader of B.C., then surely he knows that leading by example is a cardinal rule. Yet what kind of example is it when government pays its cabinet ministers $152,000 - more than double the median household income in B.C. - and they still rack up another $6,000 on restaurant meals?
(Interesting fact: Chong’s salary and food expenses combined would cover 52 rent supplements of $250 for a whole year. It would keep 22 people on income assistance.)
I do know enough about budgets to recognize that Ida Chong eating out less often wouldn’t necessarily translate into more money for public services. Every pocket of funding has its own line on the budget. Money doesn’t readily flow even within programs, let alone between different ministries or from the political level to the squeezed community services below.
But Campbell’s government could change that tomorrow if they wanted to. MLAs could be told to make a real effort to reduce expenses, and savings could be channelled directly into struggling services. Wouldn’t that be a good-news story?
Instead we’re reading about Chong’s eating habits and feeling betrayed again. It’s like catching your parents gulping down steak and lobster in the shed while the kids huddle in the kitchen eating gruel.
Come on, you guys. B.C. is hurting, and it’s a real drag to find out that our political leaders aren’t sharing the pain. Pack a lunch.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Tuesday, July 06, 2010
Friday, July 02, 2010
It's still the back of the bus for mental health services
Alan Campbell couldn’t believe the kind of care and support his wife received after being diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago.
The speedy treatment. The kind words. The follow-up calls and offers of support. It was an amazing experience, says Campbell - and all the more striking when compared to the level of care his own clients typically see.
Campbell has spent the last 34 years working in B.C.’s mental-health system, most recently as director of mental health and addictions for the Vancouver Island Health Authority.
I’m sure he would have liked to have been finishing off his career this week reflecting on the tremendous gains made around mental-health care in his time. That’s certainly been the case for breast cancer and for many other major health concerns that we’ve tackled with fervour in the last three decades.
Alas, Campbell retired Wednesday from a field that is very nearly as underfunded, misunderstood and stigmatized as it was when he got into it in 1976. Had his wife been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia instead of breast cancer, her family’s journey through a fractured and overwhelmed mental-health system would have been very, very different from the experience they had at the tender hands of the B.C. Cancer Agency.
Why is that? Why does one disease get the resources it needs to do things exactly right, and another have to beg for leftovers at the back of the line?
Mental illness accounts or 20 per cent of all illness, yet its share of health-care spending on Vancouver Island is a mere eight per cent. Make that six per cent in B.C. overall.
“We haven’t figured out how to get behind mental health as a country,” says Campbell. “It’s not just a problem here. In other regions, other provinces, the same dynamic exists. When we compare ourselves to other countries, we don’t look good.”
Campbell’s final months at VIHA can’t have been fun, what with the outrage building in the local psychiatric community over the loss of even more mental-health services.
In recent weeks, a doctor with the Schizophrenia Affective Disorders Clinic, Dr. Adam Gunn, resigned over the cuts. Dr. Anthony Barale has closed his outpatient service at Victoria General Hospital for people with brain injuries, saying he can’t support a system that’s failing patients and their families.
Dr. Andre Masters noted those resignations in a letter to the editor last month, and says more are likely coming. VIHA’s Department of Psychiatry passed a motion last fall condemning everything about the way budget deliberations were handled at VIHA.
Yes, there’s an urgent need for more spending on mental-health services, says Campbell. But when his department takes that message forward, the answer is usually “no,” he adds.
“For every one of the five years I’ve been doing this job, we’ve put forward strong, well-reasoned cases for more funding,” he says of his department. “The only time we were successful was in getting money for the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness. My understanding is that our requests are given real consideration, but they just don’t fare well in the end.”
Nor does it go well when VIHA starts moving money around on the Island, taking funding away from places like Victoria and Nanaimo in order to provide more services in places like Port Hardy and Duncan. Mental-health services may be insufficient in Greater Victoria, but they’re downright dismal elsewhere on the Island, says Campbell.
The economy will eventually improve, of course, and brighter days will dawn for many of the health, education and social services under the knife right now.
But that won’t get to the fundamental problem plaguing mental-health services, which is that it’s buried at the bottom of the priority list for health spending even in the best of economic times.
Once upon a time, cancer treatment was poorly funded and misunderstood as well. But brilliant minds as far back as 1938 saw a way to address that problem, and the foundations of what would eventually become the B.C. Cancer Agency were put in place.
Its mandate and practices are everything that health care should be: Consistent and thorough; well-resourced; research-based; thoughtful. It’s a made-in-B.C. blueprint for doing things differently around mental health. So is the province’s new 10-year mental-health plan, if it’s able to become something more than just words on paper.