Alberta care homes fight to prevent release of financial reports

A continuing care operator is fighting a recent ruling by Alberta’s information czar that would reveal how hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars are spent each year at the province’s nursing homes and supportive living facilities.

Shepherd’s Care Foundation is asking the courts to overturn a decision by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner ordering the release of the complete annual financial returns it and other operators file with Alberta’s health authority.

In a notice seeking judicial review, the Edmonton-based organization says making the returns public under the province’s freedom of information legislation would cause significant harm to its business and labour relations interests.

Filed as a condition of the facility’s contract with Alberta Health Services, the returns show the amounts a facility derives each year from the public purse and from resident fees.

The document also details how much of that money is spent on care, food and administration and whether any surplus or profit is left over at the end of 12 months.

The OIPC ruling stems from requests filed with AHS by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees several years ago for the returns of 15 continuing care operators with which it was involved in collective bargaining on behalf of workers.

Mark Wells, an AUPE spokesperson, said the freedom of information requests were made because the operators said they could not afford to raise wages but refused to provide the union with any information about their financial circumstances.

“It was crucial information we needed to properly represent our members,� said Wells, “but it’s also crucial data for Albertans to have about how these facilities have been spending public money intended for the care of our ailing seniors.�

At the OIPC inquiry, other affected operators — including large, private companies like Extendicare, Revera Inc. and Touchmark — also objected to the release of their returns.

Although by law AHS is the province’s sole provider of nursing home and designated supportive living services, the authority also argued that release of it returns would harm its competitive position.

“I have been told that AUPE has taken strike action previously, and that the information in the records may be useful … in future collective bargaining,â€� OIPC adjudicator Theresa Cunningham said in the ruling.

“(But) I am unable to find that disclosure … could reasonably be expected to interfere with negotiations of a public body or the government.â€�

Cunningham also noted the returns at issue were for the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years and it was unclear how those could have a bearing on future labour negotiations.

The ruling comes as the province’s financial watchdog released a report two weeks ago that said the oversight system for long-term seniors care facilities is fragmented, redundant and largely reactive.

In a 263-page report, Auditor General Merwan Saher said health officials who oversee the $910-million long-term care system don’t check that vulnerable residents are receiving the services required by their care plans, nor do they monitor to see if staff are properly scheduled to provide that care.

The three-year review of the Continuing Care Health Service Standards still isn’t finished — creating “serious delays� and “a sense of uncertainty at the front line,� Saher said — and neither Alberta Health nor Alberta Health Services reviews the facility accreditation reports that are mandatory under provincial law.

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