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Critical report damns VIHA in Cowichan Lodge closure

Staff at Cowichan lodge receive news of its looming closure in June of 2008. - Peter W. Rusland/file
Staff at Cowichan lodge receive news of its looming closure in June of 2008.
— image credit: Peter W. Rusland/file

An ombudsperson's report about the closure of Cowichan Lodge confirms the Vancouver Island Health Authority did not follow appropriate process in shutting down the seniors' facility.

"The ombudsperson has done a good job of really confirming what the community already knew," Cowichan Valley MLA Bill Routley said.

"VIHA provided inadequate and confusing information to residents and their families, and certainly (VIHA) didn't consider the risk to residents' health and safety, which is huge. It's outrageous seniors would be treated this way. In my mind, that's seniors' abuse and it's totally unacceptable."

VIHA created a flood of community outrage when it quietly announced the closure of its 94-bed seniors' residential care facility on Tzouhalem Road in June 2008.

The health authority had initially intended to close the facility within three months in violation of its own 12-month notice requirement in closing adult care facilities.

That violation was eventually corrected, but on Aug. 21, 2009, the last resident of Cowichan Lodge was transferred to a different residential care facility, and the following day, Cowichan Lodge was officially closed.

Meanwhile, the B.C.'s Office of the Ombudsperson received a total of 46 complaints from Cowichanians who were concerned about, or directly affected by, the closure.

Ombudsperson Kim Carter's subsequent report, On Short Notice: An Investigation of Vancouver Island Health Authority's Process for Closing Cowichan Lodge, was released on Feb. 14, and includes six findings and six recommendations.

Some of Carter's findings include:

- "VIHA provided inadequate and confusing information to residents and families about the reasons for the closure of Cowichan Lodge and the reasons for the planned schedule to transfer its residents. This contributed to a lack of transparency and an unnecessary and avoidable increase in concern during the closure process."

- "It was unreasonable for VIHA to delay notifying Cowichan Lodge staff for more than three weeks after the VIHA board approved the proposed residential care capacity plan that included the decision to close Cowichan Lodge."

- "VIHA did not adequately consider the risks to residents' health and safety in requesting an exemption to the 12-month notice for clsoure and did not submit adequate information to the Chief Medical Health Officer to allow him to consider if there would be an increase to the risk to residents' health and safety if an exemption were granted."

- "Despite being aware that residents and families were concerned about the decision to reduce the notice period and move residents more quickly from Cowichan Lodge, VIHA failed to inform residents and their families that they could appeal the CMHO's exemption decision..."

"VIHA acknowledges and sincerely regrets that the processes surrounding the closure of Cowichan Lodge in 2008/09 were not managed in an ideal manner," VIHA CEO Howard Waldner wrote in a letter to Carter, which is included the ombudsperson's report.

Carter's recommendations, meanwhile, include developing a publicly available policy about the process for closing a facility; fulfilling the legal obligation to provide one year's notice, or seek an exemption to regulatory notice periods when planning a facility closure; and ensuring requests for and decisions about exemptions are posted promptly and prominently at affected facilities along with information about how to appeal the decisions.

VIHA has stated it cannot comply with a recommendation to establish an alternate decision maker — not directly affiliated with VIHA — to consider VIHA's requests for exemption to the 12-month notice requirement, because it believes it is statutorily bound to refer requests for exemption to VIHA medical health officers.

Carter said she is "satisifed that there will be consideration of change on that issue at the provincial level."

Routley, meanwhile, said he hopes the report will prevent similar situations from happening in the future.

"The residents and the families involved will never forget the way this community was treated," he said. "It's a sad story, and it should never be repeated."

Joan Hayden-Luck of the Cowichan Lodge Auxiliary agreed.

"We knew it was wrong. It was a mistake — a big mistake," she said. "And the report isn't going to help us, but it certainly will help others in the future."

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