AgeCare’s Skypointe location in northeast Calgary. Photo: Cam Hoff

Breaking point’: Inside AgeCare’s for-profit care homes

As UCP protects companies, workers speak out.

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On March 4, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro stood outside AgeCare’s Seton long-term care home in southeast Calgary to announce $3.5 billion in funding for continuing care.

“I know this funding doesn’t take away the pain for hundreds of families who have experienced the terrible loss of a loved one over the past year due to the pandemic, or to the thousands of caregivers who continue to provide care while grieving for individuals who they came to know and love,” Kenney said. “Our heart goes out to all of those who have been affected in this way.”

But workers at homes run by AgeCare, a Calgary-based for-profit company, say the premier’s talk is cheap. These facilities, they add, are continually understaffed while employees are expected to work under tight, demanding schedules—conditions that have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need to have more people on the ground doing this,” says Kate, a health-care aide at an AgeCare home. (Her real name is being withheld to protect her employment.)

“It was not an easy job before COVID and people need to recognize that it’s an undervalued job,” she adds.

From 2006 to 2013, AgeCare received tens of millions of dollars in government grants, but employees and their union say that the company has spread itself thin to the detriment of staff and residents, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has made this evident.

We love these people; they are our family. To watch them die is traumatic.

Kate,

Health-care aide, AgeCare

Earlier this week, after lobbying by the long-term care industry, the Alberta government introduced Bill 70, which would protect long-term care operators, including AgeCare, from lawsuits related to COVID-19 outbreaks.

But as the ruling United Conservative Party aims to shield long-term care providers from liability, health-care workers are wondering who’s supporting them and the residents.

New protection for care providers

Far from just pushing people around in wheelchairs, health-care workers are dedicated to their patients, Kate says, and they and often grow fond of them. When an outbreak sweeps through a facility, it makes the loss of life all the more difficult to bear.

“We love these people; they are our family,” she explains. ”To watch them die is traumatic.”

In January, the Alberta Continuing Care Association (ACCA), a group that represents long-term care operators including AgeCare, filed to lobby the province about “COVID-19 legal liability protection” for continuing care providers. Expressing concern that the Public Health Act “does not explicitly protect operators acting in good faith,” the ACCA sought new legislation from the ministries of health and justice, according to a registry entry filed on Jan. 4.

On April 22, the government delivered with Bill 70, the COVID-19 Related Measures Act.

According to sponsoring UCP backbencher Richard Gotfried, the legislation has been in the works for five years. When introducing the bill in the Legislature, Gotfried said the bill would apply to health-care providers who have been following public health orders and guidelines throughout the pandemic

“The protection would not extend to those deemed grossly negligent,” he added.

Alberta Medical Association president Paul Boucher has also supported the bill. In a government press release, he said that the legislation “will provide comfort” to health-care providers following public health rules by providing protection from civil lawsuits that could follow from “inadvertent transmission” of COVID-19.

The government compared the bill to similar legislation Ontario passed in November. Critics pilloried that bill for making it harder for plaintiffs seeking justice. In COVID-19 related lawsuits against providers, grieving families in that province now have to demonstrate not just negligence but "gross negligence," which has a higher threshold.

Nearly 70% of COVID-19 deaths in Canada were among long-term care and retirement home residents as of Feb. 15.

If passed, the Alberta legislation would be retroactive to March 1, 2020—four days before the province’s first confirmed COVID-19 case.

The ACCA did not respond to The Sprawl’s request to comment on its lobbying.

The pandemic has hit long-term care homes particularly hard in Canada. Nearly 70% of COVID-19 deaths in Canada were among long-term care and retirement home residents as of Feb. 15, a recent report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information notes.

Between AgeCare’s five Calgary facilities, there have been at least 77 resident deaths since the pandemic’s outset, 46 of which occurred at the Skypointe location in northeast Calgary, according to the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE). The union represents licenced practical nurses, health-care aides, housekeepers, maintenance and food service workers, as well as administrators at these homes.

AgeCare did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Following the money

AgeCare operates 10 for-profit continuing care facilities in southern Alberta, half of which are in Calgary, as well as one in Burnaby, B.C. The two founders, Hasmukh Patel and Kabir Jivraj started the company in 1998.

Patel is a long-time member of the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Medicine, while Jivraj, a former Calgary chief medical officer, represented the Alberta government in recently-fraught negotiations with the Alberta Medical Association.

Six AgeCare locations, including two in Calgary and the one in B.C., were sold to a real estate investment trust in 2006. Earlier this year, Axium Infrastructure, an independent portfolio management firm in Montreal, bought 80% of the shares in the five remaining homes.

AgeCare still operates all 11 homes, while Jivraj and Patel own shares in the five remaining companies through family trusts—Vestalia and Futuregen, respectively.

According to the National Post’s database of federal and provincial campaign donations, the founders have individually given significant amounts to the former Alberta Progressive Conservative (PC) Party. Between 2010 and 2015, Patel donated $10,000 to Alberta PCs, while Jivraj gave just over $13,000 between 1997 and 2013, as well as $500 to Jason Kenney in 2008, who was then a Calgary-area Conservative Member of Parliament.

AgeCare, Vestalia and Futuregen also donated almost $38,000 to the Alberta PCs between 2004 and 2015. Within that period, AgeCare also received millions of dollars in government grants.

According to a 2013 report from the Parkland Institute, AgeCare homes received $24.6 million from 2006 to 2011.

There’s a cronyism with privatization, with the political donations, which are then paid back through grants to private sector operators.

Bob Barnetson,

labour studies professor, Athabasca University

And in 2013, the Sagewood facility in Strathmore alone received $21 million after the government closed Strathmore General Hospital’s long-term care unit as part of broader health-care cuts.

Later that year, AgeCare’s Seton home in Calgary received an $8.6-million grant for its construction, which is roughly half of the $17.1 million the company received to open 250 beds in Calgary in 2013.

Bob Barnetson, a labour studies professor at Athabasca University, says that under the for-profit model, operators appear to be “cashing in” on public funding by selling the facilities that were built with public funds.

“There’s a cronyism with privatization, with the political donations, which are then paid back through grants to private sector operators,” he adds. “Conservatives in general have long pushed for privatized care, because that reduces the cost overall, and also transfers the cost away from the public and onto workers, who have worse working conditions.”

Union calls for government intervention

Despite the fact that AgeCare received large subsidies over the years, the workers at these homes say they were left to weather the COVID crisis short-staffed.

On Feb. 1, AUPE called on Alberta Health Services (AHS) to take over management for four AgeCare homes—three in Calgary and one in Strathmore—because management was not heeding the union’s concerns.

According to AUPE, management has required employees to walk through COVID-infected and non-COVID-infected areas during the same shift; it has pressured employees to work while sick or not fully recovered; and it hasn’t provided support or training to deal with outbreaks. The union also cited a traumatized workforce with increased work loads due to short staffing and insufficient sick days.

If private operators can’t operate safely and won’t, why would we continue to give them tax money to operate those facilities?

Bob Barnetson

These conditions, says AUPE vice president Bobby-Joe Borodey, point to a clear problem with how AgeCare treats its staff and residents, even prior to the pandemic. She says leaving the private sector to take care of the elderly causes management to cut corners when it comes to care, which affects residents and staff alike, she says.

Eliminating this profit motive by bringing the aforementioned four AgeCare homes under AHS would go a long way towards improving working conditions and resident care, Barnetson adds.

“What starts to matter more is the quality of care the patients are receiving and the safety of the facility, because there’s no way for government bureaucrats to profit from operating the facility unsafely,” he says. “Given the outbreaks that we’ve had in nursing homes, maybe that is the right and moral thing to do. If private operators can’t operate safely and won’t, why would we continue to give them tax money to operate those facilities?”

AUPE members who work at AgeCare facilities “have reached a breaking point,” which has prompted the union to ask the Alberta government to impose a change in management, Borodey says: “They recognize right now that things have come to a point where they can no longer let it slide and they feel that it’s necessary to take some form of action to find a resolution.”

For her part, Kate feels immense pressure due to the rigid timelines imposed by management, who expect employees to get residents ready for the day in roughly six minutes. “I can’t even put my kettle on for hot water in six minutes,” she says.

‘We didn’t feel supported’

An AgeCare health-care aide at one of the Calgary locations, who will be referred to pseudonymously as Lorraine, says the company contracted outside agencies to assist them during the pandemic’s first wave instead of hiring more full-time staff.

“Some of the agency staff were OK, but some were just terrible and didn’t follow proper protocol for donning and doffing of (personal protective equipment), and were just there to make a paycheque,” Lorraine says. “They weren’t as concerned with outbreaks and getting screened.”

We want to make sure public funds go towards a public system that puts the care of residents and the staff who work with those residents at the forefront…”

Bobby-Joe Borodey,

Vice-president, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees

While staff were grateful the company recognized the need for more support, the temps provided an inconsistent quality of care, she adds, and added even more stress to the job: “We were basically just stuck with them, whether they did the job or not.”

What’s more, she says, the company told staff and family members that AgeCare was holding “huddles” with staff twice a day to keep employees abreast of developments.

“I don’t know when they were having huddles, but I missed them,” Lorraine says. “We didn’t feel supported.”

For Borodey, the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the need to include long-term care as part of a strong public health-care system.

“We want to make sure public funds go towards a public system that puts the care of residents and the staff who work with those residents at the forefront, and not profit,” Borodey says.

But, Barnetson says, the buck ultimately stops with the provincial government, which is able to seize control of the industry if it wanted to.

“The Kenney government is ideologically opposed to the public provision of most public services,” he says. “I also think they don’t want to take on the responsibility for having what has been a catastrophe on their hands. It’s way easier—if it’s a private-sector operator—to just blame them.”

As of publication time, The Sprawl did not hear back from AgeCare. We will update the story if they choose to respond.

Jeremy Appel is the municipal politics reporter for The Sprawl.

Now more than ever, Albertans need strong independent journalism.

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Thanks to the support of our 2,000+ members, none of our stories are behind a paywall. Help us do more of the journalism we need right now and become a Sprawl member today!