03/10/2015 06:15 EDT | Updated 05/10/2015 05:59 EDT

Medical students advocate for seniors care and tax incentives for caregivers

REGINA - A group of Saskatchewan medical students says there should be better economic incentives for caregivers who look after seniors at home.

Jessica Harris, who is a second-year medical student at the University of Saskatchewan, said the group is advocating for a tax benefit for home care providers regardless of a senior's income.

She said currently families aren't eligible for the benefit if the senior earns more than $15,000 per year.

"We realize that it's a tax on the caregivers to have them in their home," Harris said. "We ask the government to remove that stipulation of the net-income threshold."

She said the medical students also want to expand what is covered under home care costs. They are also asking the government to commit funding to long-term care in the annual budget.

"It's really a multi-level approach," she said Tuesday at the legislature. "It'll only continue to get worse if we don't act now."

Greg Ottenbreit, who is the minister responsible for rural and remote health, said the government continues to focus on improving home care.

He said he believes cases of seniors neglect in care homes across the province are not part of a systemic issue.

"Geographically, admittedly it could be widespread," he said. "But when we look at the overall percentage of satisfaction, I believe with seniors care it's well up into the 90 per cent (range)."

The ombudsman launched an investigation in November following the death and alleged mistreatment of a senior at a Regina care home.

Margaret Warholm lived at Santa Maria Senior Citizens Home until her death in October 2013. Medical records show Warholm lost almost 14 kilograms in a year and had compression fractures in her vertebrae. She also had a large bedsore on her back that her family believes could have been prevented.

Ombudsman Mary McFadyen said in January that her office had received about 35 complaints related to care in long-term care facilities since her investigation started.

She added that the complaints are about poor quality of care, low staff-to-resident ratios, a lack of accountability and poor communication.

NDP Leader Cam Broten has repeatedly criticized the government's stance on seniors care and is calling for minimum care standards.

"I don't know what rock this government has been living under," he said. "This approach that they have of saying it's a one-off ... there needs to be a recognition that this a problem.

"It's very telling to have the medical students from the University of Saskatchewan come to the legislature," he said. "It shows that the students are seeing it first-hand."