Saskatchewan ombudsman fights for your rights

By Sheryl Smolkin

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Today I’m interviewing Saskatchewan Ombudsman and Public Disclosure Commissioner Mary McFadyen for savewithpsp.com. She assumed these positions on April 4th, 2014.

Prior to returning to her home province of Saskatchewan to serve in this capacity, Ms. McFadyen was Deputy Registrar of the Supreme Court of Canada and before that, Director General Legal Services for the office of the Ombudsman for the Department of National Defense and Canadian Forces.

She has a Law Degree from the University of Saskatchewan and an LLM. from the University of London, the London School of Economics.

Today we’re going to talk about her role as Ombudsman, when her office can and can’t help you, and some examples of cases and investigations conducted by her office, including a recent report about the care provided to Mary Warholm.

Thank you for joining me today, Mary. 

Thank you very much for having me.

Q: Now what exactly is an Ombudsman?
A: Well, an Ombudsman is an independent, impartial public official who has the authority and the responsibility to receive and investigate or formally address complaints about government actions, omissions and decisions. When appropriate they can also make findings, recommendations and publish reports.

Q: So tell me a little bit about the mandate of Ombudsman Saskatchewan and the problems your office can help provincial residents resolve.
A: Well, the mandate of Ombudsman Saskatchewan is to take complaints about government actions, decisions or omissions that affect people personally. Most of the government institutions like the Ministries, the Crown corporations, the agencies and the boards fall under our jurisdiction.

We have very wide powers of investigation and we have the ability to talk to anybody to get any documents to determine whether or not the decision was fair or if we can recommend or suggest that it be changed because it was not fair.

Q: You’re primarily provincial. What complaints and government concerns can you not deal with?
A: We can’t deal with anything that’s in the federal jurisdiction or private interest between citizens of a private nature. That’s for the courts. There are very few provincial organizations that do not fall under our jurisdiction but there are some. Rural and urban municipalities are examples of areas that do not fall under our jurisdiction.

Q: If a Saskatchewan resident wants to file a complaint with your office, what is the process they have to follow and is there anything they should do first?
A: Usually an Ombudsman office is one of last resort, which means that people should try to work out the problem that they have with the institution that they have issues with. For example, most organizations have some kind of customer service or complaint resolution office already in their office and those offices are there to hopefully resolve people’s problems to their satisfaction so they don’t need to call us. Those situations should work themselves out. Otherwise we can help.

Q: So do all complaints get investigated and resolved?
A: Out of the complaints that we get (about 2,500 a year) we estimate that about 80% we deal with at the first instance, within a couple weeks. Sometimes it’s just a misunderstanding between what someone heard and what they think someone said to them. About 20% of complaints would actually go on to be investigated in our office.

Q: And how long would they take?
A: Well, our objective is to get 90% of our files closed within 90 days and we’re pretty good at meeting that. We try to do the big investigations within six months like we did with the recently Margaret Warholm case. Sometimes, depending on a lot of circumstances it can take longer. But we do try to be timely.

Q: So you’ve got offices in Regina and Saskatoon, but I notice you took a road trip to Kindersley and Meadow Lake at the beginning of the year. Was there a particular reason you traveled to these towns or do you regularly set up appointments throughout the province to meet complainants?
A: Well, one of the goals when I was appointed is I wanted to have a look at where complaints come from throughout the province because not everybody lives in Regina and Saskatoon. That was the reason for our road trips to Meadow Lake and to Kindersley.

Q: Interesting. In April of this year, you filed your first annual report. Can you give me examples of a few cases of unfairness that your office investigated and resolved?
A: This year there was a case that very much attracted the public’s interest. It was a senior citizen who had a direct debit to pay her SaskEnergy account.

Every month the bill came and it was paid directly from her checking account. And this went on for ten years. She didn’t really pay much attention to it but she just knew that it got paid. And then after ten years she got a letter from SaskEnergy saying that she now owed $13,000 immediately.

Q: Wow…
A: So that was a lot and as a result she contacted us. What had happened was the pre-authorized payments had been coming out of somebody else’s account for over ten years.

The other person died and when his estate was settled the executor found this mistake and contacted SaskEnergy realizing that this money had been paid someone else’s bills. So we looked at it and we agreed that it was obvious that this person did owe the money and that SaskEnergy did have the right to collect it.

But we tried to resolve the problem in the best way possible for her. It ended up that SaskEnergy agreed to a smaller lump sum because they understood that they had some responsibility as well because it had been going on for ten years. So the complainant who came to our office paid the lump sum and was very happy to have the issue resolved.

Q: Interesting. Now in mid May of this year, your report “Taking Care, An Ombudsman Investigation Into the Care Provided to Margaret Warholm While a Resident at the Santa Maria Senior Citizen’s Home” was tabled in the legislature and the report included 19 recommendations. What triggered this investigation? What was the issue here?
A: Well, what triggered this investigation is that back in November of 2014 Mrs. Warholm’s family actually went public with concerns about their mother’s care while she was a resident at Santa Maria. They had tried to get information after she died about her care and they found that the answers they received from Santa Maria were not satisfactory and they went to the legislature to express their concerns. The Minister of Health referred the matter to our office for investigation.

In Saskatchewan we have standards of care in the regulations that all long-term care homes must follow when they’re providing care. So we looked at the care Margaret care received when she was at the home and including her bed format, her pain management, nutrition and hydration.

We made ten recommendations directly to Santa Maria that they had to implement. One covered the care of bed sores, because her bed sores were very, very severe.

When we announced we were doing this investigation we got about 89 calls from all over the province, which led us to believe these were not issues for just one long-term care facility within just one health region.  People weren’t sure where to complain and if they did complain they were afraid that there may be reprisal against their loved ones and they wouldn’t be properly cared for.

When we looked at how the whole long term care system works in Saskatchewan we found about 100 care standards that the Ministry of Health has enacted that all long-term care facilities are to follow. Throughout this whole system there was actually nobody monitoring or making sure that the standards of care were actually being met.

Q: That’s frightening because we’re all going to be there eventually.
A: It is. That is a very good point because we did make recommendations that the Ministry of Health and the health regions have to make sure that people actually understand what it means and that the homes are actually putting processes in place to make sure that they are meeting the standards of care for each resident.

Because we had a really tight time frame for doing this investigation, there were lots of things that were mentioned to us that we just did not have an opportunity to look at, nor necessarily was my role to do so as an Ombudsman.

The last recommendation that we made was that they really have to determine what the future needs of long term care patients in Saskatchewan are and come up with a plan to address it because, you’re right, we’re all getting older and because this problem is not going to go away, it needs to be tackled.

Q: So how do you enforce your recommendations?
A: Well, as an Ombudsman we only make recommendations. But in this case, we notified the organizations, the Ministry, the health regions, and Santa Maria that we will follow up within six months to see how they’re progressing with the recommendations.

One of the benefits of being an Ombudsman is we do have the power to go public with what we recommend. Lots of times just shining attention on an issue is enough to get the government moving on something.

Q: That sounds like you’ve made a tremendous contribution to the province and if you can keep the heat on….
A: Yes, I think it was. We tried to write our report so that it was very reader-friendly.  Our goal was  to set out some very basic information about how long-term care works in the province to facilitate a good discussion about going forward and how we’re going to tackle this issue.

Q: Well, that’s really interesting. Thank you very much, Mary for talking to me today.
A: You’re welcome.

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