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B.C. agencies ponder next moves in battle over $17-million shortfall

Oct 21 2012

A group of community service agencies battling the B.C. government and a non-profit benefits provider has called a meeting for next week to discuss legal and political strategies.

The agencies, many of which work with vulnerable adults, dispute that they are responsible for a shortfall at Healthcare Benefit Trust.

Agencies that quit the trust in recent years have been hit with exit levies representing their share of a deficit that topped $17 million last year.

The trust argues that it has a duty to look after disabled employees who are left behind when agencies pull out. The agencies say government should cover any shortfall since it forced them to join the trust in 1999.

The parties have spent the past two years trying to resolve the issue. But talks broke down recently, and the trust is demanding $4.8 million in outstanding exit levies from 46 community service agencies.

HBT has given the agencies 30 days to decide whether to pay in one lump sum or sign a settlement agreement to repay the money over a period of time.

A number of agencies are refusing to pay. They plan to meet Monday in Richmond to discuss legal strategies, as well as ways to apply "political pressure outside the legal arena," according to the meeting notice.

The six-hour session is being hosted by the B.C.

CEO Network, the B.C. Association for Community Living, the Community Services Benefits Trust, and the Federation of Community Social Services of B.C.

Two of the hosts - the Community Services Benefits Trust and the federation - offer employee benefit plans of their own.

But organizers say the meeting is strictly a strategy session and not a recruiting drive for HBT's competitors.

"The meeting is not intended to entertain a debate about the relative merits of HBT versus other benefit plans," the meeting notice states. "Nor is it intended to challenge the decisions of those who have chosen to remain [in HBT].

"It is, however, intended to be helpful to those organizations that have already withdrawn from HBT with exit levies said to be owed, to those who have decided to withdraw from HBT, and to those seriously considering withdrawing."

Melinda Heidsma, who chairs the CEO Network, confirmed that people have raised concerns in the past about overlap between some of the organizations hosting the meeting.

The network, which has been leading the fight against HBT, has ties to HBT competitor Community Services Benefits Trust.

Bill Fildes, Heidsma's co-executive director at the AiMHi Prince George Association for Community Living, sits on the board of Community Services Benefits Trust, as do CEO Network board members Paul Wheeler and Ernie Baatz.

But Heidsma said the CEO Network has legal advice indicating that there is no problem with the cross-over between the two volunteer boards.

The decision to have four co-hosts of Monday's meeting was an effort to reach all agencies that may have been affected, she said.

Heidsma said the competing benefit providers will not be allowed to discuss their plans at the meeting, which will focus on making sure that agencies receive accurate information about the HBT issue and how best to respond.

"It's not going to be a sales meeting," she said. "That's not what it's about." lkines@timescolonist.com

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