11/09/2012 03:28 EST | Updated 01/09/2013 05:12 EST

Families skeptical over inspection of Canada's largest veterans facility

TORONTO - Relatives concerned about the care their frail loved ones are receiving at Canada's largest veterans facility said Friday they were pleased Ottawa had sent in an inspector.

At the same time, they said they were skeptical about the impact the move would have on care levels at the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre.

"I think it's great, but now they're going to be prepared for it and everything is going to be bustling clean and everything is going to be all fine," said Rodney Burnell, who's ailing father George has been at Sunnybrook for three years.

"This inspector should go without them knowing. They're going to be put on a big show."

On Thursday, The Canadian Press outlined several concerns raised by relatives, who said they had been stonewalled by Sunnybrook in trying to have them addressed.

Among the issues raised were claims of vets being neglected or forced to endure unsanitary conditions, delays in bathing and feeding, soiled sheets, dead mice in rooms, and constant room and caregiver changes.

In response, the office of Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney said he was immediately dispatching a "senior official" to look into the complaints.

Sunnybrook spokesman, Craig DuHamel, said inspectors visited the unit on Friday.

"They didn't express any concerns," DuHamel said. "I think they were satisfied with the care we're providing."

Ottawa's action came amid frustration by some families at what they call an ongoing lack of accountability by a facility that resembles a regulatory orphan.

Home to 500 aging Second World War and Korean War vets, the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre is unique in Canada in that it receives both provincial and federal funding, but reports only to Veterans Affairs Canada on both budgetary and care-quality matters.

"We're the only one left in Canada," said Dorothy Ferguson, the centre's operations director.

"(Veterans Affairs) has been gradually transitioning their residential care to the provinces."

Even though it operates in Ontario — which has a nursing-home inspection regimen and regulations enacted in 2007 related to long-term care standards — the veterans facility does not fall under the province's scope.

"The ministry has no involvement in any oversight," said David Jensen, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Health.

But Sunnybrook insists it adheres to the Ontario rules and meets or exceeds quality standards.

"We've volunteered to follow the standards voluntarily, and voluntarily agreed to be audited, and we've been audited twice," Ferguson said.

The last random audit by the Ontario Ministry of Health, which took place several years ago, resulted in no action required, Ferguson said, adding the auditor was "impressed."

Debra Stuart, who said she has tried for months to get anyone to listen to her concerns about her father's care, was glad the issue had finally come to the forefront.

"I'm so emotional. I've worked on this for so long. I've been so desperate to get some help," Stuart said Friday.

Still, she, too, wondered whether the inspection would achieve anything.

"The minister is sending someone from his office to Sunnybrook for whatever good that will do, because they need some objective intervention," Stuart said.

Niklaus Schwenker, Blaney's communications director, said in a statement officials met with Sunnybrook's administration and "confirmed" the issues are being addressed.

"The minister has requested continued updates and has been clear that should additional concerns be raised, they will be investigated immediately," Schwenker said.

Currently, the veterans centre has 190 "Level 2" beds — equivalent to nursing-home beds — which are funded by the federal government.

The other 310 "Level 3" spots — complex continuing care beds — are funded out of Sunnybrook's overall $538-million transfer from the province. The facility refused to say how much it gets from Ottawa but Veterans Affairs put the figure at about $26 million a year.

"It costs money to be audited; that doesn't come under the provincial budget," Ferguson said.

Residents pay about $900 a month, essentially for food and accommodation.

The story prompted other families to come forward with their stories of what they considered inferior care.

For its part, the centre points to surveys showing sector-leading levels of patient and family satisfaction.

Asked about the various complaints, Sunnybrook management expressed surprise, saying they were unaware of the concerns.

However, one woman who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation against her aged father, said spouses of vets wrote an email to CEO Barry McLellan about a year ago.

"The letter was clear in stating that the concerns were not getting dealt with in the veterans centre," the woman said.

McLellan's response, she said, was to forward the complaint to the centre, where nothing happened.

However, DuHamel said he was only aware of an anonymous email, and an attempt at following up was met with no response.

Confusion over who Sunnybrook reports to appears to extend to some provincial politicians. The office of one member referred a relative to the Ontario Health Ministry's long-term care action line, saying a complaint would be assigned an inspector.