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Victoria agency for sexually abused children refuses to cut services to pay benefits trust

Oct 24 2012

A Victoria society that helps sexually abused children plans to join other agencies that are refusing to pay their former benefits provider.

The Mary Manning Centre says it would have to cut services to vulnerable children in order to reimburse the Healthcare Benefit Trust.

"We have decided that we will not willingly pay this debt," said executive director Sandra Bryce on Tuesday.

"It's an ethical issue." Mary Manning pulled out of the Healthcare Benefit Trust two years ago and faces a $36,000 exit levy that allegedly represents its share of the trust's deficit.

However, community service agencies dispute that they are responsible for the trust's deficit, which surpassed $17 million in 2011. The deficit formed when long-term disability claims outstripped the trust's ability to pay.

Government has been working with HBT and the agencies for two years to try to resolve the issue, but talks broke down in recent weeks.

Now, HBT is going after 46 agencies for $4.8 million in outstanding exit levies.

The trust says it has a legal duty to look after the disabled employees who were left behind when the agencies pulled out.

The agencies say the B.C. government should cover the shortfall, since it forced them to join the trust in the first place.

Judith Wright, Mary Manning's clinical co-ordinator, said the centre serves between 160 and 250 children and family members a year.

She said at least 30 children would lose services if the centre is forced to pay the $36,000 levy.

The centre, which is run by the non-profit Child Abuse Prevention and Counselling Society, has a budget of more than $800,000, but no extra cash or administrative money to cover the bill.

"People could say, 'Well, sure, you could do it,' " Wright said. "But it's going to hit something."

Bryce, meanwhile, questioned why government contacted her recently, asking how the agency planned to repay HBT.

"Are they now the collection agent for a private business?" she said. "That's very curious."

The Ministry of Social Development, which has been leading efforts to resolve the issue, said government is merely following through on its promise to work with agencies to figure out how they can pay the exit levies without hurting front-line services.

"It is part of our practical, common-sense approach to bring closure to this issue without affecting services so we all can move on to better things," deputy minister Mark Sieben said on Tuesday.

The ministry is directly involved in the issue, in part, because the agencies requested government's help, he said.

"Secondly, if you follow the money back, it is all government money," he said.

"Whether we're talking money at HBT or through the agencies, this is all publicly funded.

"We think, therefore, there is a legitimate interest on government's side to mitigate any possible risk to services while making sure that any liability that has accrued can be practically addressed."

Bryce believes the issue is headed to the courts.

She met Monday with officials from other community agencies in Richmond, where there was overwhelming support for refusing to pay the levies and working together to fight back, she said. lkines@timescolonist.com