The B.C. government can't be trusted to regulate the new foreign owners of one of B.C.'s largest providers of seniors care when it is already failing to maintain guidelines for publicly funded health services to seniors, NDP health critic Judy Darcy says.
Last week, the federal government approved the sale of a Canadian, family-owned chain of seniors' care homes, Retirement Concepts, to Anbang, a massive Chinese conglomerate with an opaque ownership structure.
"There are enough challenges with accountability and transparency, and seniors are suffering because B.C. regulators are not ensuring elder care is up to code," Ms. Darcy said in an interview Monday. "Now, the decisions about this company's future will be made by a multinational company that is one step removed."
Retirement Concepts is the province's highest-billing provider of assisted-living and residential-care services to seniors, collecting $86.5-million in public funds in the most recent fiscal year. Although the sale to Anbang has been approved, the province has not yet issued operating licences to the new owners.
Documents obtained under Freedom of Information show the province had little interest in intervening in the sale, assuring federal officials last November that it would not question the investment decision.
However, Ms. Darcy said the provincial government should be demanding answers about the sale: "They are taking a completely hands-off attitude, but the government of British Columbia is responsible for delivering seniors' care. They should be asking questions."
In a recent report, the B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie found that 91 per cent of facilities with publicly funded beds are not meeting provincial guidelines for providing sufficient hours of direct care to residents.
Ms. Darcy said she fears that the province, which has left the vetting of this sale entirely with the federal government, will have even less influence over the standards of care for seniors under Anbang's ownership.
In an interview, Ms. Mackenzie said seniors' care facilities are "adequately regulated," and she would not assume that the change in ownership will result in greater issues of concern. "I feel we can monitor this and I would anticipate that if there were issues, they would be dealt with quickly."
Last November, the federal and B.C. governments exchanged a series of e-mails about the proposed sale. In the e-mails, released through a Freedom of Information request, British Columbia deflected questions about the sale.
In a Nov. 28 e-mail to senior advisers in Premier Christy Clark's office, Shane Mills, director of issues management, summarized the Ministry of Health response this way: "They will focus on patient care, regulations don't change with ownership and investment is a fed decision."
Later that day, at a news conference on an unrelated topic, Ms. Clark stuck with that script when asked about the proposed sale: "That's the federal government's purview … It's not an area of provincial responsibility," she said.
The next day, media-monitoring officials from Global Affairs Canada asked their provincial counterparts whether the B.C. government has "any media lines … we would appreciate if you could share them."
The "key messages" then crafted for the media, according to the e-mails, included: "Our number one focus during any potential sale is patient care and ensuring the continuity of quality care for patients."
When details of Anbang's murky ownership structure appeared in a Globe and Mail report on Nov. 30, questions were sent back up the communications ranks through Mr. Mills. The response from B.C. bureaucrats was that it was "too early to make any determinants of the company of the deal. We have no evidence that the company is shady."
When Ottawa approved the sale last week, the provincial government was told almost nothing about the reasons for the decision.
The federal approval of the sale lists the investor as Cedar Tree Investment Canada Inc. and makes no reference to the chain of ownership. Cedar Tree is a subsidiary of Anbang.
Anbang has faced repeated questions in the United States over ownership and ties it has to the Chinese state. The New York Times last year reported that 92 per cent of Anbang was held by firms fully or partly owned by relatives of Anbang's chairman, Wu Xiaohui; or his wife, Zhuo Ran, the granddaughter of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping; or Chen Xiaolu, son of a famous People's Liberation Army general.
According to the scant public details included in Ottawa's decision, Retirement Concepts has 20 retirement-nursing homes in British Columbia, as well as two facilities in Alberta and one in Quebec.