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More clarity needed for care-home visits: ombudsperson

A provincial health order that essentially requires all long-term care homes across B.C. to grant residents the option of having an essential visitor and a social visitor is in place, but B.C.’s ombudsperson thinks it should go further.
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Ombudsperson Jay Chalke.

A provincial health order that essentially requires all long-term care homes across B.C. to grant residents the option of having an essential visitor and a social visitor is in place, but B.C.’s ombudsperson thinks it should go further.

Ombudsperson Jay Chalke said Monday he welcomes the provincial health officer’s order Friday that legally requires all long-term care homes to consistently apply the visitor policy issued last month by the Health Ministry. But Chalke wants concerns about the appeals and communication process to be addressed.

He called for mandatory timelines for decisions made by facility staff on requests for visits as well as for each stage of an appeals process. Care homes should also provide written reasons when visits are denied or restricted, he said.

“When the stakes are high, we expect to see high standards of fairness and high standards of fairness, as a minimum, require a clear process, and if someone’s been unsuccessful, clear reasons as to why they’ve been ­unsuccessful in their ­application,” Chalke said in an interview.

In January, after months of fighting for designation as an essential visitor for her 89-year-old mother in a Nanaimo seniors home, Jeanette Harper was approved but she never knew why she was first denied in June nor why she was approved last month.

Victoria’s Brenda Brophy, who now cares for her 100-year-old mother, Dot Finnerty, at home, said she never would have risked moving her mother and only did so because she was twice turned down by a ­Victoria long-term care home for essential visitor status, with the exception of one week when her mother fell.

The provincial health order requires all long-term care facilities — public and private — to apply the visitor policy, which includes an appeals ­process.

When long-term care visitor restrictions were initially put in place by each region’s chief medical health officer there were variations in the orders, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Monday. “One of the complaints we’ve heard repeatedly is inconsistency in how the guidelines have been applied around the ­province.”

Now a”common order” is in place, she said “The order and the guidelines are being revised to make sure everybody understands what the definitions are, what the expectations are, and that it be consistently implemented.”

As few as 15 per cent of residents in long-term care have an essential visitor, according to seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie, even though the criteria for essential visitors suggests “it would be the exception rather than the rule that a resident would not have an essential ­visitor if they wanted one.”

“Hopefully this will provide operators with the confidence they need to grant essential visitor status for most residents,” Mackenzie said.

Based on complaints to the ombudsperson’s office, Chalke addressed a ­communication problem with orders and ­policies.

Information continues to be difficult for the public to locate on health authority and the Ministry of Health websites; “you see different information, some of it is inaccurate, some of it’s out of date and significantly so,” Chalke said.

During the first wave of the pandemic, the ombudsperson investigated complaints about long-term care visitor restrictions and in August raised several fairness concerns. “While some of these issues have been addressed, family and friends of long-term care residents are continuing to come to my office frustrated and confused about the decision- making process to see their loved ones,” said Chalke.

“It is imperative that, where it is necessary to restrict visits to protect the health and safety of long-term care residents, such restrictions be done in the most just, fair, consistent and reasonable way possible.”

Henry thanked Chalke for the advice, said she absolutely agrees and is working with the ombudperson’s office to ensure a fair and consistent process is in place for residents and families while at the same time trying to address the needs of care home operators.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com