02/20/2013 02:00 EST | Updated 04/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Mostly positive review of Sunnybrook veterans centre called a 'smokescreen'

TORONTO - A review initiated by Canada's largest veterans centre in light of several care complaints was too broadly focused to come to grips with pressing problems at the facility, a veterans activist said Wednesday.

Speaking after the release of a report into conditions at the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre, Mike Blais of Canadian Veterans Advocacy said he was disappointed with the review.

"They now have this glowing report on areas of the hospital that were never of concern in the first place," Blais said.

"Any complaints have been marginalized. It's just turned into a big smokescreen show."

Although the report did validate some complaints, overall it declared the 500-bed centre to be a leader in the quality of care provided.

Sunnybrook CEO Dr. Barry McLellan said the report mentioned several examples of the "excellent" care.

The facility was already taking steps to implement the few recommendations in the report, McLellan said.

Last fall, several relatives stepped forward to complain about how their loved ones — the most frail of the centre's residents — were being cared for.

Among other things, they complained about delayed and missed feedings, residents left languishing for hours in soiled diapers, dirty rooms and frequent patient moves.

Relatives were especially unhappy about how management dealt with their concerns, saying they were shut down and intimidated when they pressed issues.

In her review carried out last month at Sunnybrook's request, Karima Velji said she found no "systemic gaps" related to care or to safety and patient-relation mechanisms.

However, the senior executive at Baycrest — a research hospital focused on the elderly — did appear to find merit in some of the complaints.

Among other things, she said Sunnybrook moves residents more often than many other facilities and urged such moves be minimized, noting the centre is "home" to the veterans.

In common with relatives' complaints, some nurses expressed concerns to Velji about staffing levels, particularly in the afternoons and during off-hours.

"They related meal times as being amongst the busiest times on the unit and expressed a need for meal-time support," the review states.

"Some staff members felt the access to equipment and supplies could be improved on some units. Staff related the need for more environmental cleanliness and support."

Velji also identified damaged and strained relations between Sunnybrook and relatives of residents.

Some nurses even complained they were being spied on by the many private caregivers families feel the need to hire.

Jackie Storrison, 61, a grandmother escorted out by police in December after nurses alleged she was verbally abusive, said the whole review process had left her frustrated.

"It was initiated by Sunnybrook (and) I thought they weren't getting the reality of the situation," said Storrison, who is now constantly watched by security when she visits her elderly father.

"I still continue to find my father in (clothes) that are drenched."

Among recommendations, Velji said the centre should implement "enhanced approaches" to address the needs of families from admission onwards.

"The program should consider a stronger adoption of the philosophy of 'admitting a resident means admitting their loved ones'," she said.

Both the federal and Ontario governments spend more than $55 million a year to fund the veterans centre.

The province, however, has washed its hands of the complaints, saying oversight is entirely Ottawa's responsibility.

A federal audit that was done first in response to the families' concerns has yet to be finalized.

Niklaus Schwenker, a spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, said Wednesday the federal government was looking forward to the "timely implementation" of the recommendations.

"Minister Blaney expects that veterans and their families receive high quality care while being treated with respect at all times," Schwenker said.