Thursday, July 25, 2013

BC Hydro using $24K fee threat to withhold SNC-Lavalin payments info

If you’ve been following Canadian news for the last few years, you probably heard of Montreal-based engineering giant SNC-Lavalin and its troubles. 

The company has extensive operations in Vancouver, some of which only became apparent when the World Bank blacklisted SNC-Lavalin in April over corruption at infrastructure projects in Bangladesh and Cambodia. Here is my Business in Vancouver story

I also reported on how SNC-Lavalin announced a company-wide whistleblower amnesty, in an effort for it to root out corruption from the inside. 

SNC-Lavalin was given the contract to build the Evergreen Line, the SkyTrain extension to the Tri-Cities. It also was involved in the Canada Line, Sea-to-Sky Highway project, Canada Line, Bill Bennett Bridge and as one of the last sponsors to sign-on with VANOC for the 2010 Winter Olympics. It has ongoing contracts with BC Ferries and BC Hydro. (Check out Laila Yuile's blog for much more on SNC-Lavalin).

In 2011, its Operations and Maintenance division began a five-year outsourcing agreement for BC Hydro facilities management services. 

SNC-Lavalin was paid $40,091,145 by BC Hydro for the year-ended March 31, 2012. For the previous two fiscal years, it was paid a combined $76.1 million. 

I recently filed Freedom of Information requests to BC Hydro, to get lists of payments made by BC Hydro to SNC-Lavalin and vice versa since 2010. 

In response, BC Hydro wants me to pay a combined $23,368.47 to fulfil my stated request -- not including 6 cents a page for photocopying. (BC Hydro's FOI department stubbornly insists on photocopying and mailing or couriering instead of the 21st century method of scanning and emailing. Power Smart and Penny Foolish, perhaps?)

BC Hydro’s long-winded, pessimistic fee estimate letters are below. Two years ago, Premier Christy Clark issued an edict for open data and information across government. Certainly BC Hydro can follow the leader. Unless it is hiding something for some reason. 

These excessive fees that BC Hydro wants to charge remind me of U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat-Vermont) and his Sept. 30, 1986 statement on the tendency of governments to threaten FOI requesters with big bills, in order to prevent information from being accessed by citizens.
"Indeed, experience suggests that agencies are most resistant to granting fee waivers when they suspect that the information sought may cast them in a less than flattering light or may lead to proposals to reform their practices. Yet that is precisely the type of information which the (Freedom of Information Act) is supposed to disclose, and agencies should not be allowed to use fees as an offensive weapon against requesters seeking access to Government information...."
Needless to say, I will be appealing BC Hydro's excessive fees.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Furlong saga worsens

This time last year, I was in London to cover the 2012 Olympics.

One prominent Canadian was notably absent. John Furlong, the chief executive of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics organizing committee. Furlong would have been wined and dined by at least two prominent people in London. He would have certainly enjoyed watching an Olympics as a fan instead of organizer.

Sebastian Coe, the chairman of the London 2012 organizing committee, told me in an interview in Vancouver, after the 2010 Games, that he was speaking multiple times a week with Furlong. Coe constantly sought Furlong's advice on how to organize an Olympics.

Furlong served as VANOC CEO at the pleasure of Gordon Campbell, who was British Columbia's premier from 2001 to 2010. Campbell became Canada's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. Canada's diplomatic mission at Trafalgar Square in Central London became Canada Olympic House, a home-away-from-home for Canadian athletes and their families. Campbell hosted many an event there.

Furlong chairs the Own the Podium high-performance sport, fundraising ally of the Canadian Olympic Committee. CEO Anne Merklinger showed up in London, but Furlong didn't.

Before the end of September, we learned that a complaint had been filed with the RCMP before the Olympics. A complainant alleged Furlong committed sexual and physical assault against children while   he was a teenaged missionary at a Catholic elementary school in Burns Lake, B.C. 

On Sept. 27, 2012, the Georgia Straight published journalist Laura Robinson's expose, "John Furlong biography omits secret past in Burns Lake."

Furlong rapidly and vehemently denied all the accusations at a news conference. Furlong's "Patriot Hearts" memoir only mentioned arriving in Canada in fall 1974 at Edmonton. It turned out, he was in Burns Lake and later Prince George from 1969 to 1972. At that news conference, he downplayed his early years in northern B.C. as "brief" and "uneventful," but didn't explain why they were omitted from his book.

Two months later, he filed a defamation lawsuit against the Georgia Straight and the author of the expose, Laura Robinson. Robinson and the newspaper filed defence statements containing further damaging allegations. Furlong's public relations agent, not his lawyer, told media on Jan. 22, 2013 that he would be responding with additional court filings in a matter of days and he would eventually be vindicated.

Six months later, Furlong has not filed a rebuttal to the Georgia Straight and Robinson. If he was planning a defence, it most likely was tragically disrupted on April 11 when his third wife, Deborah Sharp, died in a head-on crash on a rural road in Gorey, Ireland, near their house. She was 48. Irish police continue to investigate.

One-hundred and four days after Sharp's death come new allegations in B.C. Supreme Court.

Lawyer Jason Gratl, on behalf of former Furlong students Beverly Abraham and Grace West, sued Furlong, Vancouver's Catholic Archdiocese, Prince George's Catholic Diocese and the Catholic Independent Schools Diocese of Prince George on July 24, 2013. They allege Furlong committed  physical and sexual abuse against them. They are also accusing him of defamation.

Abraham and West's statements of claim are below. Furlong's lawyers John Hunter and Claire Hunter have not responded for comment.

None of the allegations against Furlong has been proven in court.

Exclusive: Health ministry "requested" seniors wheelchair tax

The B.C. Liberal government didn't just change policy to allow health authorities to impose a new, $25 a month wheelchair fee on seniors in care. Documents I received under Freedom of Information say that it ultimately asked Fraser Health Authority to charge the controversial levy.

“A proposal to introduce Wheelchair Rental Fees at the Owned & Operated Residential Care Sites was submitted in the (Program Budget Marginal Analysis) process,” said a May 6 Fraser Health briefing note on wheelchair maintenance fees in residential care facilities. “Subsequent to that submission, the MOH (Ministry of Health) requested FH to implement wheelchair maintenance fees to align with a similar proposal made by (Vancouver Coastal Health). This request was based on a desire to have similar practices in all Health Authorities and to align with the practices in (Community Care and Assisted Living Act) facilities.”

The briefing note and undated Wheelchair Rental Revenue report were released to me by Fraser Health via Freedom of Information. The report forecast “Moderate risk that implementation will cause significant political concerns.”

The appropriateness and acceptability of the charge were both deemed “moderate overall negative impact.” 

“Complies with policies but the additional cost may be burdensome for some residents and families,” said the report. “Staff may have difficulty charging for equipment that used to be free. Families/residents may object to user payment.” 

The report estimated $266,000 net revenue for 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 combined. 

Maintenance charges for wheelchairs of seniors in-care are permitted under the Ministry of Health’s Home and Community Care regulations. Fraser Health planned to collect fees from residents’ comfort funds and offer a waiver for those who cannot afford to pay the $300 a year. 

“Residents will be encouraged to purchase or rent wheelchairs from outside healthcare equipment vendors and the cost to purchase a wheelchair ranges from $1,000 to $3,500 for a manual wheelchair and a typical wheelchair rental from an outside vendor is $70-$100 per month,” said the briefing note.

The briefing note estimated that 60% of the 1,178 residents in Fraser Health-owned and operated facilities use a wheelchair from the aging Fraser Health-owned fleet.

“A wheelchair rental program would serve as a cost recovery initiative that would finance the cost of replacement equipment and ensure that equipment is maintained in optimal condition. This rental program will not apply to other mobility devices such as walkers and canes,” said the briefing note.

I asked both the Ministry of Health and Fraser Health for comment. In particular, I wanted them to tell me the date of the Ministry of Health request to Fraser Health. 

A Fraser Health statement provided by email, credited to Keith McBain, Executive Director for Residential Care and Assisted Living, said:
“The decision to implement the wheelchair maintenance fee occurred after many discussions, some dating back to the end of 2012, and were part of a larger discussion regarding the general issue of charging of fees in residential care. The over-arching concern was the lack of consistency across the residential network of care, not just within Fraser Health, but the whole province. Residents in contracted facilities or in the community, faced one reality with regards to wheelchair purchases and rentals; while those in owned and operated facilities faced a very different one. 
“Understanding that this decision would likely meet public resistance, we did not limit our decision-making because the decision is unpopular. We have a responsibility to all members of our community. Seniors living at home or in a contracted facility, are required to buy or rent their own wheelchairs, walkers or canes at considerable cost. However, seniors living in an owned and operated facility can borrow a wheelchair for personal use at no charge. To bring consistency, the maintenance fee is being introduced as of September 2013. We recognize that this may pose a financial burden to some residents, so a hardship waiver process has been established. Each case will be considered on an individual basis, but no senior requiring a wheelchair will be denied one. 
“We will continue to maintain our existing stock of wheelchairs, but will require more as some of these will need to be retired and demand increases. It is also important to keep in mind that when a wheelchair goes from one person’s use to another, it must go through several infection control measures which can be costly. 
“The intention has never been to cause stress or anxiety to our seniors, but to establish some consistency across the entire residential care network.”
What does the Health Ministry say? Spokesman Ryan Jabs sent me a link to a June 14 information sheet

“Fraser Health should be able to provide you some details on your questions,” Jabs wrote.

Like McBain, Jabs didn't answer the question about the date when the Ministry of Health requested Fraser Health charge the fee. 

The information sheet emphasizes the $1.7 billion annual subsidy for residential care and assisted living, which covers more than 31,000 beds. It said the new policy requires operators to clearly explain fees and all health authorities have hardship provisions in place for clients unable to pay. 

“Residents in B.C. are left with at least $325 a month for personal expenses and other allowable charges,” boasted the information sheet. “This is one of the highest minimum retained incomes in Canada.”

The controversy was at the top of the list in Question Period on July 24 when NDP Leader Adrian Dix asked Health Minister Terry Lake a simple, straightforward question and got spin in return.

NDP Leader Adrian Dix: "Last month we learned the Fraser Health Authority will begin charging the Premier's $300-a-year wheelchair tax on vulnerable seniors in residential care, taking advantage of a government policy change that enabled the tax. Today we learn that not only did the government enable the new tax on vulnerable seniors, it actually made it happen. A Fraser Health briefing note obtained through freedom of information shows: "The Ministry of Health requested Fraser Health to implement wheelchair maintenance fees.
"Can the Minister of Health confirm that in fact it was on the ministry's instructions that Fraser Health decided to charge this uncaring tax, and can he further confirm if the ministry asked other health authorities to do the same?" 
Health Minister Terry Lake: "I would remind the member opposite that British Columbia currently spends $1.7 billion every year to subsidize the province's comprehensive residential care and assisted-living services. That is an increase of $600 million in the last 12 years.
"While residential care is a person's home, and while the public health system covers the cost of medical and health care needs, residents pay for the cost of their personal equipment and supplies just as they would if they lived in the community, as I explained during estimates debate yesterday.
"But I will say this. No vulnerable senior citizen will be denied a service if they cannot afford a particular equipment or aid in a publicly subsidized residential care space in the province of British Columbia."

What do you think? Are you a senior in care who uses a wheelchair? Are you a relative of a senior in care who uses a wheelchair? I want to hear from you. You may comment below or email me.

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