A staffing shortage at an Edmonton facility for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients caused by denied visas for 13 temporary foreign workers shows the dangers of off-loading seniors care to the private sector, a seniors advocate says.
The Excel Society was left scrambling to staff the 105-suite Balwin Villa in north Edmonton in mid-November when the federal government rejected the organization’s applications to retain 13 temporary foreign workers from the Philippines.
Bill Moore-Kilgannon, executive director of Public Interest Alberta, said the case shows what can happen when the province pushes “more and more onto private for-profit or not-for-profit (organizations), where staff are paid at incredibly low rates,” forcing agencies to look elsewhere for staff.
“From my perspective, this provincial government has a failed model of treating seniors and the disabled,” said Moore-Kilgannon.
Premier Alison Redford made seniors care part of her successful bid for leadership of the Progressive Conservatives last fall, pledging to eliminate the $40-a-day cap on accommodation fees for seniors in long-term care as part of a broader plan to stimulate construction of care facilities. In December, the province pledged funding for 511 more supportive living spaces and 30 long-term care spaces by July 2014.
But Moore-Kilgannon said such announcements fail to guarantee effective standards or consistency in staffing.
The Balwin Villa workers, trained as nurses in the Philippines, were recruited on one-year contracts with the goal of earning provincial LPN certification, said Excel Society spokesman Charlie Vermeeren. Excel applied to Service Canada to renew the expiring contracts, but were caught short-staffed when the visas were denied by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Attempts to keep the workers on staff were unsuccessful, leaving the workers with 90 days to apply for alternate reasons to remain in the country.
“Between various government branches that we had to run paperwork through, one seemed to get ahead of another, and they pulled their work permits,” said Vermeeren. “We’re in this situation, it’s like having a fire truck in the station and no firefighters.”
The workers were responsible for personal care for seniors suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, including laundry, serving meals, dispensing medication, and cleaning rooms.
Families were informed about the staffing shortages, Vermeeren said, and vacancies were covered on a part-time basis with workers from 30 facilities owned by the organization. Alberta Health Services also knew of the shortage, and also provided nurses to “carry them over” until Excel could recruit replacements, said spokesman Kerry Williamson.
The positions have since been filled, but Vermeeren couldn’t specify exactly when.
“It was kind of frustrating for us,” Vermeeren said. “Finding LPNs is like looking for hens teeth it seems. We search and search and search and find a few, then the search begins again.”
The $24-million facility opened in July 2010 at a newly-renovated North Edmonton Elementary school. Eighty of 105 units are funded by Alberta Health Services, 16 of which are dedicated to patients with serious brain injuries. The rest are private suites. Eight units house between 8 and 22 patients according to levels of required care, each area staffed by an LPN, but also with a personal care or health care associate.
One of the workers — who remains in contact with staff at the facility — said staffing levels remained low weeks afterwards. Some units were reduced to one worker after the nurses were no longer allowed to work.
“It’s still short-staffed,” she said. “Some of the personal care is not done.”
Vermeeren admits staffing is an ongoing challenge at the facility. Dementia-sufferers are difficult clients, and agencies can’t compete with pay levels or benefits offered by hospitals. Many employees work additional jobs to get by. The Excel Society employs workers from about 25 different countries, Vermeeren said. And when an economic booms hits, many employees simply find better paying jobs elsewhere.
But he’s hopeful that Redford’s comments show a recognition of the difficulties of attracting qualified health care workers at facilities like Balwin Villa.
“We can’t pay them what they’re worth,” said Vermeeren. “We contract to do the service, they tell us how much money we can have to spend.”
Williamson said that while Balwin is contracted to provide the services, Alberta Health Services still considers funded residents as patients.
“We’ve been working with Balwin to address their concerns,” Williamson said. “We do fund these beds, so we’re constantly following up to ensure patients needs are being met.”
There were 9,652 LPN nurses in Alberta in 2011, with 3,331 practicing in Edmonton. They work with doctors and registered nurses, providing direct care by measuring vital signs, giving injections, collecting samples, and dressing wounds.
Most LPNs have graduated with a two-year diploma, but the certification can be challenged through equivalency programs and upgrading at facilities like NorQuest College.
Because the position exists primarily in North America, the practice of looking abroad to fill LPN positions is relatively uncommon in Alberta, said Sharlene Standing, director of regulatory services for the College of Licensed Practical Nurses of Alberta.
Few workers can afford to come to Canada for upgrades, but Standing notes that other provinces have been recruiting registered nurses from the Philippines and India. And between 2008 and 2009, Alberta Health Services brought about 400 nurses to Edmonton from the Philippines as part of a two-year pilot program with Norquest College to recruit LPNs.
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