Thursday, May 31, 2007

Liberals look inept, uncaring in lottery scandal

Everything about the B.C. Lotteries scandal is just so sleazy. It's not just the incompetence and the false assurances. No one is taking responsibility.
The government corporation charged with promoting gambling left the door wide open for fraud. People who bet on Keno or lotteries - and against all odds win - risk being cheated out of their prizes. It's easy for corrupt retailers to tell people their tickets are worthless, then turn around and claim the prize.
The public guardian is supposed to be the Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch in the Solicitor General's Ministry. But it was useless. Worse than useless, really. When the issue finally became too big to ignore, athe branch didn't investigate to see if people were being cheated. It offered up false reassurance.
So did Solicitor General John Les, who provided inaccurate information to the public about their safety from fraud and theft.
And none of this would have come out, if it was left to B.C. Lotteries or the ministry. It would have been hidden.
But the CBC did a story on the extraordinary number of lottery ticket sellers who won prizes in Ontario. The Vancouver Sun filed a freedom of information request, and reported the same was true in B.C.
That was last fall. The news stories offered the government and B.C. Lotteries a chance to respond with a real investigation.
They didn't. Quite the opposite. Instead of addressing the problems, they went into what the NDP calls cover-up mode. B.C. Lotteries and the enforcement branch claimed they had investigated and there was nothing to be concerned about.
There were only 74 cases of potential fraud and everyone had been investigated, B.C. Lotteries said. The Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch said it had done its own investigation and everything was fine. It had reviewed all 74 cases, the branch said.
Les said the public had nothing to worry about. "In the past few years, the B.C. Lottery Corp. has received only 74 complaints about lottery ticket validation concerns and those were all fully investigated and resolved," Les said "When a retailer claimed a prize, a detailed investigation was conducted."
None of that was true.
The government said that should end the matter. But the province's ombudsman was hearing from consumer complaints and decided to launch an investigation.
The ombudsman's findings, just released, are grim. There are no effective procedures to protect people from being cheated. Neither the lottery corporation nor the enforcement branch did anything to check for scams by unscrupulous dealers in kiosks, stores or bars. It was up to the public to somehow detect fraud. But when people did complain, they were usually brushed off.
That claim of 74 cases. False, the ombudsman said. There were more like 200. The claim that every case was investigated. False. The enforcement branch's statement that it had reviewed the corporation's handling of those cases. False. The claims of controls to ensure retailers weren't cheating. False.
The enforcement branch's performance was particularly dozy. In the four years since it was created, the branch did not conduct one investigation into the integrity of the lottery corporation's retail network.
The law requires every suspected case to be reported to be the branch, but it never noticed that it hadn't received a single report since 2002.
Its investigation into the allegations looked to be more about public relations for B.C. Lotteries than protecting the public. "The depth of the investigation and the fact that a number of disquieting pieces of information were toned down or left out contributes to this result," the ombudsman found.
Les has ordered another audit and says he's unhappy.
He has yet to explain why he didn't make an effort to ensure the public was protected.
An audit by a company hired by Les and working under orders set out by his ministry would be hopelessly inadequate. A proper, independent inquiry into the whole gambling expansion and its consequences is needed.
Footnote: As solicitor general, Les is responsible for promoting gambling, overseeing the enforcement branch and dealing with addiction. The conflicts are obvious. Since tougher enforcement or a focus on problem gambling hurts revenues. It's reasonable to assume that everyone involved took their cue from the Liberals, who put money ahead of principle when they abandoned their 2001 promise to halt gambling expansion as soon as they were elected.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Liberals ' own man blows whistle on health region underfunding

So is the Fraser Health Authority really the only one in the province without the money to provide proper care?
Or are the problems in the other four regional authorities simply being hidden from the public?
The questions are unavoidable in light of leaked documents from the Fraser Health Authority that reveal that inadequate provincial funding will lead to serious problems for patients this year.
Especially as the documents indicate that other health authorities are facing similar problems and that they have been working behind the scenes on introducing user fees for seniors to try and bring in more money.
The NDP raised the issue in the legislature, basing their questions on leaked documents from the Fraser Health Authority.
And not just any documents. The most damning criticisms came from Gordon Barefoot, chair of the authority board. They confirm earlier warnings that the heath authority doesn't have enough money to provide needed care.
Barefoot sets out the reality in his introduction to the region's three-year plan.
"Unfortunately, as the result of available financial resources, this plan, by necessity, reflects too little investment in acute care services and community programs," Barefoot warned. "The risks and likely impacts of the plan are significant."
"The lack of current capacity in acute care as well as delay in the growth of community services will continue to manifest as emergency room congestion, delays and cancellations of surgical and diagnostic procedures, medical units over capacity and delays in rehabilitation and access to community services," Barefoot noted bluntly.
Efforts to improve performance in areas like patient safety will be abandoned. The authority won't be able to deliver the care the government has demanded. User fees are planned.
Bad news for patients and the government. Worse, because Barefoot, a senior business executive, is most definitely on the Liberals' side. He took over as chair in January, after Keith Purchase resigned because he believed the province was not providing enough money to deliver needed care.
A big question now is whether the problems in Fraser Health are an exception, or whether the news just hasn't leaked from the other authorities.
The region does have some special challenges, especially population growth.
But patients across B.C. sitting in emergency rooms or waiting for surgery might suspect similar constraints in their region. And it's tough for them to have any confidence in the local health authority board, accountable only to the provincial government. The boards are generally invisible and secrecy seems the rule.
Certainly, that's true for Fraser Health. The three-year plan that includes these warnings went to the government in March. Now it's two months later - two months into the fiscal year - and it would have remained secret if not for the leak.
And apparently, all the authorities have been holding secret discussions about charging patients and seniors to make up for inadequate core funding from government.
The plan says Fraser Health has "collaborated with other health authorities and have identified a number of revenue-generation opportunities which will require ministry approval and regulatory or policy changes." The plans include introducing user charges for seniors in long-term care and charges for people who need help to stay in their homes.
Big charges. The Fraser Health Authority plans to take in $25 million in user fees, according to the plan. That's part of the effort to eliminate the $65-million shortfall created by provincial funding that doesn't meet patients' needs.
And while the health authorities are discussing user fees for seniors, not one has raised the option in an open board meeting or consulted the community.
The biggest question is why any of this is happening. There's a large provincial government surplus, this year and for at least the next several years.
If the Liberal-appointed chair of the largest health authority says patients will suffer because of underfunding, government could choose to solve the problem. It hasn't.
Patients across the province have to wonder what's happening behind the closed doors in their health authorities.
Footnote: All the health authorities received significant funding increases this year, with Fraser Health's allocation rising 7.1 per cent. But even with that, the authorities have received an average 3.5-per-cent a year increase since they were created in 2002, not enough to keep up with inflation, population growth and the needs of an aging population.