10/24/2013 02:08 EDT | Updated 12/24/2013 05:12 EST

Opposition NDP criticizes change to Saskatchewan long-term care staffing rules

REGINA - The Opposition is accusing the Saskatchewan government of changing long-term care rules that address "sufficient staff" numbers.

In the first question period to kick off the new session at the legislature, NDP Leader Cam Broten said the government removed a regulation that said nursing care home residents should get "at least two hours" of staff time per day.

"Let's be clear, other provinces have minimum care standards of 3.6 or 3.8 hours per resident, per day," Broten said Thursday.

"But instead of increasing Saskatchewan's minimum care standard and ensuring we have appropriate staff in place to actually fulfil that standard, this government choose to completely remove the minimum care standard."

The regulations were changed in 2011.

Health Minister Dustin Duncan says the regulations were decades old and spoke to a time when long-term care residents didn't need as much medical help.

Duncan says he thinks residents get more care when it's tailored to them — not just the minimum hours.

"We have, I think, some really good examples within long-term care where, in individualizing the care around the resident, it's more responsive to their needs," Duncan said after question period.

Broten agreed that care should be customized to every resident, but he says there still needs to be a basic, minimum standard.

The NDP also raised concerns that health regions are listing some tasks as discretionary.

It released a memo from Heartland Health Region on what workers should do if a shift isn't filled "due to a reduction in workload or to reduce overtime costs" and a department has to work short-staffed. For example, the list says nurses and care aides should put off non-essential baths and bed linen changes.

Duncan says it's normal for facilities to have protocols in place to deal with staff shortages.

"What that says though, is it that there is a priority list of things that will be done around the direct care needs of the residents. There are issues that would be considered not as urgent in terms of the direct care that would be needed," said the minister.

But Broten says health care workers have told him that short-staffing is a chronic problem.

"This isn't a one-off incident. This is happening very often in care facilities," Broten told reporters after question period.

The debate over long-term care came to the forefront in April when Regina resident Carrie Klassen went to the legislature to warn that the level of care at the seniors home where her mother was living was dangerously inadequate.

Klassen said there were cases of residents falling or being left on toilets for hours. She said there was one week when her mom never got a bath because the care aide was by herself in the evening.

Duncan said he hoped those were isolated cases, but he sent health region CEOs to do a review.

The 311-page review released earlier this month raised concerns that patients are not getting enough baths and are soiling themselves because there isn't enough staff to help them get to the toilet. Many of the comments from across the province were about staff being stretched to capacity.

The province set up a $10-million fund to deal with urgent problems.