Les Leyne: Foreign owners, fewer workers hurt care homes

You can’t draw a direct line between the shady ventures of a giant Chinese insurance company whose founder is now in prison and the dismal condition of some Vancouver Island care homes.

But there are enough linkages to make you wonder. Particularly about why the controversial company — Anbang Insurance Group — owns Retirement Concepts’ care homes in the first place, and how it got Canadian approval to buy in.

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The questions are triggered by Island Health’s move this week to install a temporary administrator at one of the firm’s facilities, Comox Valley Seniors Village.

It also pronounced concerns about staffing shortages at similar facilities in Nanaimo and Victoria. The official public recognition of the problems are based on multiple complaints and investigations related to poor care, disease outbreaks and emotional and physical abuse. Most of the problems relate to chronic staff shortages.

Would Retirement Concepts be facing the same problems if Anbang didn’t own it?

It’s quite conceivable. Chronic labour shortages are a fact of life in the care-home sector. If the curious foreign ownership of the homes doesn’t have much to do with the problems that prompted this week’s move by Island Health, then it’s an even bigger crisis.

But there would be a lot more optimism about the chances of correcting these conditions if the ownership were a lot closer to home and people knew where the real decision makers are, and where the buck stops.

There’s a chance that day will come. Anbang, now under the trusteeship of Chinese insurance regulators, is believed to be selling off assets around the world, including some billion-dollar prime downtown Vancouver properties, to recover from the scandalous fall of its founder.

Wu Xiaohui was pronounced guilty and sentenced to a long prison term in 2018, just a year after his firm bought Retirement Concepts, which runs homes throughout Western Canada, including seven on the Island.

The basic case against him is that he raised money from unsophisticated Chinese investors and poured an inordinate share of it into trophy real estate holdings around the world. Sending money raised in China out of the country is a sensitive issue there.

And welcoming major Chinese investment into a sector like seniors care is a sensitive issue here.

There will be a lot of people saying “I told you so” now that Island Health has publicly confirmed the problems.

The Hospital Employees’ Union has been watching Retirement Concepts for years and issued a number of warnings.

And federal opposition critics were alert to the potential for problems. When China took control of the firm, there were questions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reassured critics that provincial regulations would still protect residents.

A B.C. official with the firm that manages the properties said then that no staffing changes were anticipated. Both federal and provincial approvals of Anbang’s purchase were required and granted.

Increasing trade and building relationships with China was all the rage at that time and has been for years. But welcoming Anbang’s purchase of a major chain of B.C. retirement homes has contributed to the problems now being faced.

The purchase price was rumoured to be in the billion-dollar range, so it was a major move. But the structure diluted responsibility for operation of the care homes.

The homes under scrutiny are owned by Retirement Concepts. That firm is owned by Anbang, now in a form of trusteeship, but through a Canadian subsidiary. And that subsidiary contracts with a management company to run the facilities.

Meanwhile, the B.C. government has a contract with the firm for the services it provides and pays it in the $80-million to $90-million range annually.

After Anbang erupted in scandal, Health Minister Adrian Dix was asked last year in the legislature about the ramifications.

He said Anbang’s purchased was approved by Ottawa “contrary to considerable concern in B.C.”

He said his officials were meeting soon with the new owners, “who are effectively the government of China,” to warn that standards had to be maintained and that “we don’t expect any deviation from the commitments made to us.”

That warning may have been delivered, but it doesn’t look like it was heeded.

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