“This government doesn’t want this information to come out, otherwise why would they put so much time, effort and money into keeping financial information into corporate nursing homes secret?” -David Coon
Article by: MICHAEL ROBINSON
Photo by: BRUNSWICK NEWS ARCHIVES
A judge with the Court of Queen’s Bench has dismissed Green Party Leader David Coon’s appeal of Senior and Long-Term Care Minister Harris’ decision to deny access to unredacted copies of the contracts nursing home operator Shannex shares with the government.
Green party leader David Coon’s pursuit of uncensored nursing home contracts has come to an end after nearly 500 days.And he’s going home empty-handed.
Justice Judy Clendening of the Court of Queen’s Bench dismissed his appeal of Senior and Long-Term Care Minister Lisa Harris’s decision to withhold financial elements of the government’s six agreements with private nursing home operator Shannex Inc.The March 16 ruling was Coon’s last chance to obtain details – including per diem rate Shannex charges the government – he insisted should be public.
Clendening disagreed. Instead, she accepted the argument of affidavits submitted by Shannex, which argued releasing those trade secrets to the public would give competitors an edge, harm its business interests and “possibly result in significant financial losses.”
The Green Party originally launched the request in November 2016. Harris then released the contracts in question in 2017, but key elements detailing finances and funding models were blacked out due to privacy and commercial sensitivity concerns.
“This government doesn’t want this information to come out, otherwise why would they put so much time, effort and money into keeping financial information into corporate nursing homes secret?” he told the Telegraph-Journal. “Maybe the numbers don’t look so good, maybe the staffing numbers don’t look too good. “We don’t know … it’s speculation at this point.”
In an email, Department of Social Development spokesperson Anne Mooers reaffirmed the government’s position that details of the contract can not be released due to them containing “proprietary information.” “The department respects the decision of the court and won’t be commenting further.”
Coon appealed the government’s decision with the former New Brunswick information and privacy commissioner, Anne Bertrand, who recommended the contracts be released in their entirety. Still, the government rejected this advice, leaving Coon with only one option left: To appeal with the Court of Queen’s Bench, which has the power to order the government to release the file. It’s at that time Shannex stepped into the mix to argue against the release.
Shannex Inc. spokesperson Sophie Cormier said the company was “pleased” with the decision. “We always fully supported the legal agreements being released with the exception of our proprietary financial bid information,” she wrote in an email.
“Governments use request for proposals to ensure they receive the best pricing on a project, product or service,” she said. “Sharing the winning bidder’s information publicly would have compromised that process.” Specifically, Coon wanted to know the per diem amounts each home charges the government, the number of beds funded and how many full-time equivalent staff are working at each facility.
But in affidavits, Shannex maintained its competitors could then use this data to improve their own operations. Eventually, rival companies could match or underbid Shannex on future government contracts.
Coon asserted the government is responsible for showing the public exactly how taxpaying dollars are being used to run the nursing homes facilities. He questioned if New Brunswickers are getting better value under this new public-private model versus the traditional framework where nursing homes are managed by non-profit organizations. In New Brunswick, 62 of the province’s 68 nursing homes are run by non-profits.
Having exhausted all options to obtain the requested information, Coon said he hoped for the auditor general “to take this up as one of her performance audits this year as she has the authority to get those numbers.” Auditor general Kim MacPherson told the newspaper the issue is not included as part of her office’s current work plan, but noted it is under consideration for auditing over the next three years.
Jodi Hall, executive director to the New Brunswick Association of Nursing Homes, which represents all licensed nursing homes in the province including Shannex facilities, said the industry would like to see a consistent approach when it comes to transparency. The association, she said, would be happy to engage with the government on crafting a “better approach” for communicating key indicators to the public.