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'Unsafe conditions': Advocates call for end to care program amid violence

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Following a string of violence, senior advocates and the Alberta NDP are calling for an end to a program placing patients with complex mental health issues in long-term care facilities.

The practice started during the COVID-19 pandemic as what was supposed to be a temporary measure to alleviate strain on hospitals, but advocates say it’s still happening.

The group is especially concerned about the Carewest Colonel Belcher facility in northwest Calgary. That facility was part of the trial program in November 2022 when 29 patients over 18 were placed in the building.

Fast-forward to today and the 175-bed seniors’ facility currently has a total of 58 patients facing mental health issues, some designated "high-risk.”

"Regrettably, we can no longer recommend this facility to anyone considering sending their loved ones to Carewest Colonel Belcher due to the unsafe conditions," said retired Col. Charles Hamel, chair of the Friends of Colonel Belcher Society.

The NDP said a 100-year-old veteran was recently choked by one patient, and staff had to barricade themselves in a room when others became verbally abusive.

It’s why Alberta’s Official Opposition is now demanding a stop order be issued to prevent any further admissions of complex mental health patients to long-term care facilities until a comprehensive and transparent review and risk assessment is completed.

NDP Critic for seniors' issues, continuing care and home care Lori Sigurdson added that police are routinely called in to deal with the challenging situations and the province should take these concerns more seriously.

According to a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIP) request obtained by CTV News, the Calgary Police Service has been dispatched to the Colonel Belcher facility 56 times over the past 12 months.

“This temporary measure has created a stressful and unsafe environment for all residents, staff and visitors at the Carewest Colonel Belcher,” Sigurdson said.

“It is unfortunately not uncommon for code white to be declared at the long term care facility indicating an aggressive, violent situation is in process.”

Safety concerns emerging for families of patients

Anne Sorbie moved her father from Carewest Colonel Belcher after he was assaulted twice,

“This is a program that was implemented without any evidence-based support,” she said.

“Despite numerous requests, we have not been provided with details of the policy directive and guidance or implementation plan.”

Lisa Johnson, the daughter of one of the veterans at the facility who already has complex post-traumatic stress disorder, says it's a very stressful situation for her family.

"We have been left with no other choice but to put them on a waitlist to move him if things do not change."

'We're taking action': Alberta health minister

In a statement, Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange tells CTV News she's concerned by the situation and will look into the matter.

"(Alberta Health Services) needs to focus on acute care. Continuing care and other assisted living facilities should be focused on providing long term assisted living services to residents. And people who need mental health support must receive the specialized mental health support they require.

"We’re taking action to improve the health care system. Alberta Health, together with SCSS, will be expediting the review of this program at this facility and determining if any action should be taken immediately."

Compared with the Canadian average, Alberta has less than half the psychiatric acute care beds per 100,000 people.

Where the national average is 30 per 100,000, Alberta’s rate sits at 13.

LaGrange noted that the UCP are working on increasing capacity and spaces to provide the right levels of care, adding that the situation reaffirms why the health system needs to be focussed.

Premier Danielle Smith echoed those comments during a question period in the legislature.

“AHS needs to be focused on delivering the very best hospital care, assisted living needs to be focused on delivering the very best for assisted living, those with complex needs because of mental health and addiction, they need to have specialized care as well,” Smith said.

“And now that we have four different agencies who will be focusing on that, in addition to building out our primary care system, we are confident that we're going to be able to find these problems and to address them.”

AHS to support program review for care facilities with mental health patients

In a statement to CTV News, AHS says the initial decision to place mental health patients into long term care facilities was made "after careful analysis of needs of the local population, and how best to meet the increased need for long term care clients who also have complex care needs."

“Prior to the transition, the site implemented a robust transition plan for all affected residents, and all residents were provided the option to request a transfer to an alternate facility,” read the statement.

“While all individuals have been assessed and do require placement in a continuing care facility, we are committed to providing every patient with a safe living environment. To ensure the safety of all our clients and residents following this transition, several measures at the site have been implemented, including increased security and staffing levels.”

AHS adds that it is working with Alberta Health and the ministry of seniors, community and social services to support them in their review of this program.

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