04/11/2013 01:59 EDT | Updated 06/11/2013 05:12 EDT

Ontario government ducking responsibility for veterans centre, critics say

TORONTO - A federal audit has clearly shown that Ontario's Liberal government is ducking its duty to oversee quality of care at Canada's largest veterans facility, activists and opposition critics say.

They're urging the province to force regular inspections and proper accountability at the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre, where complaints about neglect and other issues prompted Veterans Affairs Canada to order the audit.

To date, however, the province has insisted Sunnybrook can look after itself, and that the facility answers to Ottawa.

"This denial of responsibility is typical for the (Liberal) government," said Christine Elliott, health critic for the Progressive Conservatives.

"It's only when things blow up that they'll finally accept responsibility."

The audit ordered by Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney finds that Ottawa's responsibility extends to ensuring Sunnybrook spends the $26 million in federal tax dollars appropriately, while Ontario is responsible for enforcing standards of care.

The audit cites a 1988 agreement among Sunnybrook, Ottawa and the province that says Ontario "shall use its best efforts" to ensure the facility meets its obligations under provincial quality rules and standards.

Unlike similar facilities in Ontario, the 500-bed veterans centre is excluded from the provincial Long Term Care Homes Act which, among other things, mandates annual inspections with results posted publicly.

Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews, whose ministry gives the centre about $29.2 million a year, did not respond to repeated requests to discuss the issue.

However, in a brief statement late Thursday, the minister said she was pleased the audit showed care at the centre aligns with provincial and professional standards.

"The clinical care is of a high quality, and appropriate monitoring is occurring," Matthews said.

"As the report notes, its operations are also aligned with many of the principles and standards of care outlined in the Long Term Care Homes Act."

Mike Blais, president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, called on Premier Kathleen Wynne — Sunnybrook is in her riding — and Matthews to take immediate action in light of the federal audit.

"They must embrace their sacred obligation to these veterans — not ignore them under the misguided belief that the quality of their care is a federal responsibility," Blais said.

"Matthews was incorrect when she publicly claimed veterans at Sunnybrook are a federal responsibility."

The opposition also called on Matthews to step up.

New Democrat health critic France Gelinas said the latest scandal involving more than 1,100 cancer patients receiving watered-down chemotherapy shows the need for proper regulation of health facilities.

"I cannot stress how important it is to straighten this out as quickly as possible," Gelinas said of the Sunnybrook issue.

"It doesn't serve anybody any good to continue to work in a grey zone."

Blaney ordered the audit last fall after relatives complained, among other things, that the centre's most frail residents were left for extended periods in unsanitary conditions, not fed on time or at all, and that raising concerns with management went nowhere or met with hostility.

While the audit did not directly address the specific complaints, it found no systemic problems with the quality of care. Sunnybrook has also insisted its care is exemplary.

The audit was, however, highly critical of how Sunnybrook handled complaints and communicated with family members.

Beyond mandatory annual inspections, Gelinas noted the provincial long-term care act has about 350 accountability measures and rules for dealing with complaints — and said the act should apply to Sunnybrook.

"It automatically brings a whole new suite of oversight mechanisms that protect quality, that protect the client, and that give answers to family," Gelinas said.