Monday, April 29, 2002

Liberals botching long-term care
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The Liberals have made a botch of launching their long-term care strategy, stumbling through missteps that must leave seniors wondering if there is any plan at all.
The theory is excellent. Provide people with the help they need to stay in their home for a longer period. They'll be happier and taxpayers will save money. But the risks are high, especially if the beds and the support aren't there.
And based on the Liberals' actions so far, that's a serious concern.
The Liberals specifically promised 5,000 new , additional long-term care beds by 2006 in their New Era campaign booklet. The said then that 4,200 beds were needed immediately.
On Monday Kathryn Whittred, the minister responsible, shredded that promise.
She told open cabinet that a bed is no longer a bed; providing support for a senior at home would now count toward the commitment.
And while her cabinet colleagues sat silently, she abandoned the commitment to 5,000 additional beds. She announced 3,500 spaces, but most will replace beds the Liberals plan to close. Whittred didn't know how many beds would close; she didn't know how many beds would be needed in future.
The next day Health Minister Colin Hansen had the missing numbers. The five health regions will close 3,000 long-term care beds, he said, but they will replace them with 4,165 new spaces. That's a net gain of 1,165, far short of the promised 5,000, but Hansen said he felt comfortable explaining the change to his constituents.
The following day the story changed again. Hansen said he was confused. The Liberals will really build 5,000 beds.
That's tough to believe. Remember the Liberals plan to add 1,200 beds over the next three years - and then 3,800 in one year, after the election, to meet their commitment.
It's especially tough to believe when you look into the three-year plans of the health regions. The Vancouver Island region has 3,050 long-term care beds now. It plans a net gain of 180 spaces over three years. The Interior region plans to close almost one-third of the existing 4,700 long-term beds, and won't replace them all. There will actually be fewer spaces.
And where will the money come to provide these promised services? Adding 5,000 beds means something like $200 million more in operating costs, at time when health regions' budgets will be frozen for two years.
The puzzles pile up. Whittred told cabinet that closure decisions would be based on detailed information. "Through BCBC's health services group, a complete inventory has been taken of all residential care facilities," she said. "This information is made available to the health authorities to help them in planning their current and future needs." But the inventory isn't complete, even though the decisions are being made.
Whittred - and Premier Gordon Campbell - also promised no senior would be moved without consultation and a clear plan. But as they made that promise, the Interior Health Authority announced that the residents of Revelstoke's Moberly Manor have received 30-days' notice that their home will close. Residents would be moved into spare beds in the town's hospital, while the search is under way for a better home.
That's not consultation. And it's rough treatment for seniors, often ill, who have already had to give up their homes.
The health region faces its own rough choices. Money is extremely tight, especially given plans for cuts to regional budgets in the third year of the Liberals' plan. Closing the manor will save about $900,000 a year to provide other services.
The gap between the promises and the reality is rightly alarming seniors and their families.
The health care system needs to change, and the results are going to be difficult for some people.
But they should be able to count on sound planning, caution and candor. And so far, the government's handling of the long-term care question falls short on all three.

Paul Willcocks can be reached at

Our shame at sending the young to die
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The sorrow over the deaths of four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan is heartfelt, but our collective shock is stunningly hypocritical.
Did Canadians really think our troops were going to a war arranged by CNN, with great special effects and a happy ending?
War is about killing people. When we decided to join this odd war, we were deciding that some Canadian troops would die. Sadness is understandable, but shock or surprise means we never really thought about that decision.
The deaths were cruel. Soldiers from the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry were training when an American jet aimed a laser-guided 500-pound bomb into their midst, killing four young men and wounding eight others.
But even that should be no surprise. About 25 per cent of American casualties in the Gulf War were due to so-called friendly fire. So far, about one-fifth of the coalition deaths in Afghanistan are blamed on the same errors. The U.S. has bombed both its own soliders, and Afghan troops. Being killed by the people on your own side is part of modern war. Canadians should have known that; certainly the government did.
And does it really matter how the men died? Would their families' loss be much different if their jeep had rolled over on a dusty road, or they had been attacked by the tattered remnants of al-Qaeda?
War is about killing and being killed, although we don't like to acknowledge that. The U.S. military wants to honour four Canadian soldiers for their work as snipers in Afghanistan. One of them killed an enemy gunman 2.4 kms away, a likely record for that kind of sharpshooting.
But Canadian defence officials are blocking the medals, and David Bercuson, director of the University of Calgary's Centre of Military and Strategic Studies thinks he knows why. "Canadians don't kill - they don't even use the word kill; that's the problem," he said. "I think the military is not sure that the government is prepared to accept the fact, let alone celebrate the fact. . . that Canadian soldiers do sometimes end up killing people."
It must be a strange and damaging thing for both men, the one who stares through the rifle sight, holds his breath and squeezes the trigger. . . and the one who, two seconds later, falls down dead.
It's natural that we should feel a sharp sorrow. And it's natural that we should feel betrayed by the U.S., which treated the four deaths as a non-event - brief stories buried deep in the newspaper, no public condolences from President George Bush for two days.
But so far about 3,800 civilians have been killed in this war, people simply going about their business, trying to survive as bombers fly overhead and troops roll around the countryside. That too is part of the price of war we, as Canadians, have decided must be paid. Their deaths have been buried in our papers, or been ignored. We are no more interested in the people killed in their homes than the Americans are interested in our casualties.
I have given little thought to the mission our troops have been sent on, haven't written about it. Canada had two options - a peace-keeping role under British command, or a combat role under the U.S. Our government chose combat. I didn't even think much about that.
Our indifference was an insult to our troops, the 900 on the ground and the 1,700 in supporting roles. We watched them prepare, stood on the Victoria shore as the ships set off, waving little flags. But we didn't stop and think whether we wanted to send them to kill and be killed.
Now we're shocked that four Canadians have been added to the long list of those killed in this odd war.
Shame on us. We sent people off to kill and be killed with casual indifference. Only when they were dead did we really consider the price we had asked them to pay.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at