Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Decision on Bethania offer put over

Complaints over care homes mount

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Health Minister Theresa Oswald will take another day or two to weigh a settlement offer from Bethania Group personal care homes as complaints about the organization mount.

Early last week, Oswald hinted the government looked favourably upon the organization's offer and would respond by Friday. It didn't.

On Monday, Oswald said the government would take more time to make up its mind in light of new concerns about Bethania raised last week, including alleged missing pension contributions.

"I'm of the belief that if people are calling me with their concerns and calling members of the media, such as yourself, that they're calling the board too," Oswald told a reporter. "At least I think they are."

Oswald denied she was holding out for Bethania CEO Ray Koop's resignation -- or that of the board. But that's how Bethania's chairman, Jake Neufeld, interpreted the government pause on Monday.

"It's a stall tactic," he said. "It looks like they don't want to back down from the position of firing our CEO and probably the board."

Oswald went public March 21 with concerns Bethania had broken provincial rules by giving Koop a pay raise during a government freeze on executive salaries. The province also said Bethania broke a law restricting health facilities from rehiring former senior managers.

Koop received a pre-retirement payout, retired and was rehired, all within a couple of days last summer.

Bethania Group is an independently run Mennonite and Christian-centred personal care home and housing operation. It receives $9.5 million in annual government funding to operate care homes on Pembina Highway and Concordia Avenue.

Koop's restructured contract, while providing for a raise of more than three per cent on his $160,000 salary, actually saved taxpayers money, the board has argued, since the care homes would no longer be charged for $14,000 in annual employer pension payments and $2,000 per year in pre-retirement leave allowance. But by early last week, it had agreed to revert to the terms of Koop's old deal to resolve the matter.

By then, however, employees had begun raising other concerns about Bethania to the government and the media. The allegations include improper equipment maintenance, a refusal to replace staff who call in sick, and pressuring employees to sign a petition supporting management in its battle with government.

Paul Moist, national president of the 627,000-strong Canadian Union of Public Employees, said CUPE demanded on Friday the petition be removed. He called it a "pathetic, desperate move" on Bethania's part. Bethania's management has adhered to the request.

Moist said Monday the health-care aides his union represents were "surprised, bordering on angry" when they learned in the media Koop was receiving a pay hike while the care homes were constantly preaching austerity. "We think it's wrong," he said.

Because of some of the concerns raised in a Free Press story last week, Oswald ordered an unannounced inspection of both Bethania care homes on Friday. She said Monday the results of the "standards visits" were positive.

"I'm glad to report that those folks who are working on the front lines in those homes are doing the very best job that they can," she said.

Meanwhile, Neufeld said Monday the board believes Bethania is getting an unfair shake from Oswald and the media.

He said only $112,000 of Koop's $160,000 salary -- and none of the increase in the new contract -- was charged to taxpayers. The rest was absorbed by Bethania's housing and projects unit.

Neufeld said the board is especially upset at allegations of failed pension contributions by Bethania. The organization had excluded certain non-personal care home employees from a pension plan a decade ago, before it was later determined the workers should have been enrolled. The organization is now doing the best it can to rectify the situation, he said, noting it predates Koop's hiring in 2009.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2013 B2

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