NDP leader Adrian Dix says the province had three years to impose new fees for wheelchair rentals but waited until after the election.

Policy allowing wheelchair fees in place since 2010

Health authorities waited until after election, NDP charges

A wheelchair rental fee being imposed by Lower Mainland health authorities in residential care homes has no precedent in B.C. after all, nor any clear reason for its timing.

Health ministry officials have backtracked on their initial claim the planned $25 a month fee for seniors in publicly run residential care homes is already in place in some areas outside the Lower Mainland.

In fact, the Northern, Interior and Vancouver Island health authorities have been considering a similar fee, but have yet to impose one nor have they gone as far as issuing notifications to residents, as Fraser Health has done.

The fee is to recoup the cost of maintaining wheelchairs that until now have been provided for free at publicly operated care homes to residents who don’t have their own. Many privately operated care homes have had such fees for years.

And it remains unclear what has triggered the move now.

Ministry officials previously pointed to an Oct. 2012 update of a policy manual outlining allowable fees for residents in care, saying the health authorities are now coming into line with that change.

Except that there was no change.

The provision for fees on “chargeable items” such as wheelchairs and canes already existed with identical wording in earlier April 2011 and January 2010 versions of the Home and Community Care policy manual.

“The 2010 and 2011 policies contain the same sections, using the same language, delivering the same meaning on what the health authorities could charge for a wheelchair,” B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix said.

“What we’re seeing is Fraser Health responding to the government’s unbalanced budget – after the election, of course, which presumably was part of the instructions – and imposing these charges now.”

Dix said it’s “symbolically remarkable” that the fees have come while senior government staff are getting large raises and said it’s “disrespectful and laughable” for Fraser Health to treat wheelchair access as a fee-for-service item like cable TV in a seniors’ home.

Ministry spokesman Ryan Jabs maintained the 2011 and 2012 revisions clarified the manual and made it clear no one will be denied a wheelchair if they can’t afford to pay the fee.

Asked again if health authorities or the province are imposing the fee, Jabs said the decision to charge is up to the health authorities but they are all working with the ministry “to ensure that charges for allowable extras are coordinated province-wide.”

The rationale for the charge is that residential care is a person’s home, Jabs said, and while the public health system covers the cost of medical and health care needs,  care home residents should pay for personal equipment and supplies as they would if they lived in the community.

Fraser Health’s notification letter indicates new residents arriving at its facilities after Sept. 1 “will be required to purchase or rent equipment from an external supplier.”

Vicki Huntington, the independent MLA for Delta South, on Monday said that could mean much steeper charges – wheelchairs rent privately for $75 to $100 a month.

But Fraser Health spokesperson Tasleem Juma said new residents will still be able to borrow health authority wheelchairs at the $25 per month cost, subject to availability.

Juma called it a misunderstanding, noting that it has always been the expectation that residents purchase or rent wheelchairs externally if they have the means, while facility wheelchairs are available for those who can’t.

Fraser Health intends to begin charging the fee Sept. 1, as announced, Juma said.

That allows nearly three months for residents who can’t afford it to apply for a hardship waiver, she said.

Juma said new residents are also being notified so it won’t come as a surprise.

Huntington renewed her calls for the province to step in and kill the planned fee.

She noted the $25 comes out of each resident’s $200 comfort allowance, and would be equivalent to a 12 per cent income tax hike.

“It’s making mobility a privilege in these institutions and not a right,” Huntington said. “It’s a lot of money to take out of their disposable income. I think it’s a revenue grab, I really do.”