The B.C. government is being remarkably laid back about problems in its big experiment to change the way services are delivered to some 20,000 disabled people in the province.
This is hugely important to the people who need the services - adults and children with mental disabilities and their families. They’re counting on Community Living BC, the new Crown corporation taking on the responsibility.
The government has already made a mess of the changeover once, pulling the plug once on the whole thing amid scandal and mismanagement in 2004.
Now the agency is in its first full year of operation and serious new problems are emerging. Thousands of people are piling up on waiting lists. Exhausted parents - some in their 70s - are being told there’s no help available for their mentally disabled children. A leading advocacy group warns fears people are being pushed from group homes into the community without adequate support in a bid to cut costs.
And the board of Community Living BC - appointed by the government - says it doesn’t have enough money to provide the services that people need. More than 3,000 adults are on waiting lists. (The agency doesn’t yet keep track of the number of children not getting needed services.) The agency figures it is short $45 million this year and another $27 million over the next two years.
It sounds bad. These are children and adults who need help, people with significant mental disabilities. They can not fend for themselves and need support ranging from intensive, semi-institutional care to help living in the community. Families are looking for assistance in coping with the challenge of caring for a 50-year-old son with a five-year-old’s mental abilities.
About 10,000 adults and 8,000 children are counting on Community Living BC. The real need is probably greater. It’s important to get this right.
But Children and Families Minister Tom Christensen is not talking like a man in a big hurry to sort out the problems, which the Community Living board raised more than two months ago. Christensen has questioned whether the board has managed the money it receives from government properly.
But he hasn’t got answers to the question and is in no hurry to address the current $45-million shortfall. The agency’s money problems will be considered over the next few months, he says, as part of preparations for next year’s budget.
This is what many people feared would happen.
The theory was that Community Living BC would offer families and the mentally disabled a bigger role in figuring out how services should be delivered. The main advocates were families whose wanted to be be able to develop individualized care plans for their children, with the agency signing off and providing funding.
It’s a good vision in many ways. But there are risks, especially for disabled people who don’t have family members to advocate for them and may be squeezed out of the picture.
The biggest fear was that the government would use the change to avoid responsibility for providing adequate care. That was a special concern because demand and costs are likely to increase.
Community Living BC’s service plan - approved by the government - notes that population growth and increased awareness will drive demand. "Another significant factor is the aging of individuals with disabilities and their families that care for them, which leads to more complex needs," the authority warns.
And Christensen says demand is increasing at about three per cent a year. But funding for services disabled adults is slated to increase by less than two per cent a year in each of the next two years. (It did go up by five per cent annually in the last two years.)
The government’s response to the latest problems suggest the fears are justified. Whether the difficulties in delivering services stem from in an inadequate budget or management missteps, they need to be addressed now.
Footnote: Advocacy groups say funding has lagged far behind demand. The BC Association for Community Living says ministry documents report the 2002/3 budget for adult community living was $554 million. Christensen says the current budget is $550 million. That leaves the agency coping with many more families with less money than it had four years ago.[