Veteran ombudsman, Ontario now part of audit of Sunnybrook amid care complaints

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

TORONTO - Amid allegations it has been providing substandard care to its most frail residents, Canada's largest veterans facility will undergo a provincial audit in addition to one previously announced by the federal government, The Canadian Press has learned.

Meanwhile, Canada's veterans ombudsman announced Wednesday that he would formally observe the audit of Sunnybrook Veterans Centre.

"Recent allegations regarding the treatment of veterans at Sunnybrook hospital are of great concern to me," Guy Parent said in a release.

"I want to ensure that the audit to be carried out by Veterans Affairs Canada is as thorough as necessary to fully identify and address issues of concern."

Parent said he planned to meet affected veterans and their families to ensure their concerns are properly addressed.

In probing allegations of neglect of the most frail veterans at Sunnybrook, The Canadian Press found no level of government had inspected the 500-bed facility in seven years.

The Ontario government has always insisted the centre falls solely under Ottawa's authority, even though 310 of the beds are classified as complex continuing care beds under provincial legislation.

"The ministry has no authority or jurisdiction to inspect or enforce long-term-care home standards at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre," said Ontario Health Ministry spokesman, David Jensen.

However, Jensen now says the ministry will help inspect the centre at the request of Sunnybrook and Ottawa.

"We are continuing to work with Sunnybrook as the terms of reference to review patient complaints are being developed," Jensen said.

Currently, Ottawa pays $20 million for the 190 nursing-home beds in the facility, and another $6 million top-up for the other 310 beds that fall under provincial jurisdiction.

Ontario taxpayers put up $29.2 million for the provincially regulated beds.

The published allegations — vigorously denied by Sunnybrook — include frail vets left unattended for hours on end in soiled or wet clothes, delayed feedings, and unexplained injuries.

In response, Veterans Affairs announced it would audit the facility.

Details were still being worked out, but one government official said it would likely take several months to complete.

Despite the added attention, family members say the problems are ongoing, especially in the evenings and on weekends.

In recent weeks, they said they had seen among other things residents abandoned in the dining room, or left sitting alone in the dark in the lounge.

Sunnybrook, which won't discuss individual complaints in the media, has said it welcomes the audits.

It has also blamed complaints on a handful of malcontents and insists its care is as good or better than in any comparable facility.

Niklaus Schwenker, a spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, said the government's clear direction was for the review to be a "comprehensive, everything" audit.

"We look forward to working with the provincial Ministry of Health to ensure that the audit is extremely thorough," Schwenker said.

"We welcome the ombudsman's interest in being involved in the audit and agree that his involvement as an independent observer serves to strengthen the audit process."