Seniors advocate needs to be independent of government, critics say

The seniors’ advocate legislation tabled last week will not create an advocate that is independent of government, critics suggested.

The seniors’ advocate legislation tabled last week will not create an advocate that is independent of government, critics of the legislation have suggested.

“Last year the Ministry of Health consulted seniors and other stakeholders on their priorities for an advocate position, and independence was a clear top priority,” said BC Health Coalition co-chair Rick Turner. “An independent seniors’ advocate would allow for arms-length assessment of seniors’ issues, similar to the role of the representative for children and youth and the BC Ombudsperson.”

By contrast, a seniors’ advocate that is a part of government — as tabled with the Bill 10, the Seniors Advocate Act — will be limited to serving at the discretion of government and will therefore be unable to play the watchdog role that seniors need it to, BC Health Coalition noted.

Minister of State for Seniors Ralph Sultan said people criticizing the proposed legislation want a person modelled as a carbon copy of the child and youth advocate.

“Anything less than that is no good, but we say there’s more than one way to change the world.”

The seniors advocate position will be appointed by the government, not by the legislature.

“That is a key difference, I can see that,” he said, explaining the child and youth advocate is appointed by all the MLAs who form a hiring committee, much like the auditor general, and the ombudsperson.

“The critics have a valid point because this person will be appointed by order in council, which means the cabinet of B.C. that is to say people like myself sitting on cabinet will make the decision, not the legislature as a whole.”

Sultan agreed it is an “important difference” but emphasized in terms of what the person is going to be able to do it won’t have an impact.

He or she will be given the assignment to make things better for seniors in a very broad “canvass” of responsibilities, he said.

The advocate will fulfill that mandate by identifing work priorities, hire their own staff, appoint independently a council of advisors, and will have the power to gather information with a bit of a “mailed fist.”

“With all of that the seniors advocate will make independent recommendations to the minister of state for seniors, to private companies if they are involved, and to the public. Anybody involved in the seniors world.”

Additionally, they will be able to issue press releases they’ve created, report once a year to the government, and be compensated in a manner befitting a senior official of the government.

“We’re not talking about some clerk in the back office of the health ministry, we’re talking about someone with stature and compensation that goes with it.”

The idea that anyone taking the job being a “toady” to the government is misplaced, he added.

The quibbling, he suggested, is about how the person is being appointed. In terms of powers, Sultan argued they are broader than many officers of the legislature.

Turner said the BC Health Coalition is pleased that the position is being created, but without a truly independent advocate, and in the absence of other comprehensive action on the part of government to improve seniors’ care, systemic challenges will go unaddressed.

“Bill 10 comes one year after the release of the BC Ombudsperson’s report on the state of seniors’ care in B.C. The Ministry of Health has fully implemented only four of the 141 recommendations made directly to the ministry since the report’s release, and partially implemented only approximately 25 per cent of the recommendations,” Turner added.

“The Ombudsperson’s findings indicate that the Ministry of Health has, in many cases, failed to fulfill its leadership role for seniors’ care in our province,” says Turner. “Given that there is little evidence in the 2013 budget to suggest our government intends to take serious action on seniors’ care, we’re concerned that one advocate that is tied to government cannot fill that gap.”

Sultan also clarified the seniors advocate will not run a complaint office.

“If you run your life chasing complaints you will maybe make a few people happy but you’re not going to get much done constructively in terms of system.”

The position is designed, rather, to focus on “standing back” to figure out what is going on, what could the government and private sector be doing differently so those complaints don’t arrive in the first place.

“It doesn’t mean to say they ignore complaints, but this is not going to be a caseworker. Chasing complaints does not add up to policy reform. I think the government has come up with a better way, although everyone doesn’t agree with it.”

Cariboo Chilcotin Independent MLA candidate Gary Young said he is against the idea of more bureaucracy when there are already people in place in communities advocating for seniors.

“I want something done,” Young said. “A  ‘new’ office would have more money diverted from seniors to plump up the bureaucracy and would not be an independent office. If people want a seniors advocate then obviously the Minister of State for Seniors is not doing the job.”